Yes, economic self-interest spurs Muslim voters too

In Arab democracies, the middle class favour Islamic parties

The Arab Spring led to democratic elections in nations such as Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamic political parties won. Why did rich middle-class areas, seen as the home of secular democratic values, vote for these religious parties?

The usual consensus is that poor people elect Islamic parties: "[The idea] is that poor people were swayed by the rhetoric of conservative leaders and benefited from charities affiliated to them, such as the Muslim Brotherhood," says Gabriele Gratton, a senior lecturer in the school of economics at UNSW Business School.

"Yet an analysis of election data and speaking to voters shows it is not the poor voting for Islamic parties, but the middle class. This is because Islamic parties favour religious charitable institutions over centralised welfare, and middle-class voters prefer a small donation to the local mosque than paying 40% income taxes."

The first democratic election in Tunisia shows it was richer districts that voted overwhelmingly for the Islamic party, rather than for secular parties pushing for democratic values. Tunisia is not the only case. From Egypt to Morocco, scholars have been puzzled by middle-class support for Islamic parties after a democratic revolution.

So UNSW researcher Maleke Fourati went to Tunisia where her team interviewed 600 voters to find out why. With co-authors Pauline Grosjean, an associate professor at UNSW Business School, and Gratton, their modelling concluded that there was nothing specifically Islamic about voters acting in their economic self-interest.

 "I initially shared the conventional view that it was the more deprived and religious that supported the Islamic parties," says Fourati.  "Religion was an important factor as the data also shows, but people certainly took into consideration their economic situation in their voting decision – unemployment was a big issue in the Arab Spring countries."

'Already in Tunisia the Islamic party is separating its polical component from its religious movement'


 Financing public services

Electors voted not so much about religion or ideology as how to finance public services. It was for the health, education and welfare services out of the local mosques, linked to the charitable arm of the Islamic party, rather than for a secular welfare state.

Middle-class voters found these local services, financed by voluntary contributions from Muslims, are preferable and cheaper than a non-religious state welfare system financed by compulsory taxation.

This would explain why even the rich supported Islamic parties – because the charity model meant lower taxes. Yet, support for Islamic parties did not necessarily include the very rich, who fear a religious party would implement restrictive policies on their lifestyle, such as consumption of luxury goods and entertainment.

"Our model is simple and it rings true – we are saying rich people don't want to pay tax," says Grosjean. "That is nothing revolutionary. In other words, you do not have to resort to explanations of irrational behaviour or appeal to extremist groups to explain the popularity of Islamic political parties."

It makes political sense – a secular state's social welfare net would erode an Islamic party's charity and base of support. It would not be in the self-interest of the religious party to favour state redistribution through state taxation because that reduces disposable income available for donations to the Islamic charity and its political support.

"There is tension between these charities and the state, but not only in Islam – it's also in the funding of private religious schools in Australia," says Grosjean.

 Political influence

This religious obligation on Muslims to give charitable donations through the mosque for public welfare services is a good example of how such traditional economic structures in Islam have substituted for a strong state and caused economic and political underdevelopment in the Arab world, according to American-Turkish economist Timur Kuran.

Yet the authors see Islamic parties as an intermediate stage in the growth of democratic institutions. As state institutions become more efficient, and the median voter joins the middle-class, then religious parties are either forced to moderate their claim for traditional values or lose political influence.

"Already in Tunisia the Islamic party is separating its political component from its religious movement," says Fourati.

While the study confirms that religiosity is a main source of political support for Islamic parties, when religious charity and welfare state are viewed as substitutes, the poorest voters prefer the latter and do not vote for religious parties.

Also, issues of trust and corruption of government in developing societies may contribute to voters preferring Islamic charity-linked parties. Yet given a more efficient state bureaucracy, voters prefer the state to organise income redistribution more than the religious charity.

Nor were the poor less informed about the election. Voters supporting the Islamic party only showed typical support for fighting against corruption and for prosecuting former regime members. And there was no evidence that anti-Western sentiment drove a greater preference for political Islam among the better educated than the poor.

'You hear on the news debates about people voting for political Islam as a completely new phenomenon but we show it can be explained by traditional economics and is not unlike voting for Christian Democrates in Europe'


Voting demystified

The conclusion is that basic economics and the standard tools of public finance help explain the voting pattern in these elections and others in the Muslim world. The research paper demystifies voting for Islamic parties, says Gratton.

"You hear on the news debates about people voting for political Islam as a completely new phenomenon but we show it can be explained by traditional economics and is not unlike voting for Christian Democrats in Europe. There is nothing specifically different about Islamic parties in this sense," he says.

The researchers' devised a simple model of political competition between a religious and a secular party which compete with the state for the role of welfare provider for the poor.

The model's variables were voters for religious or secular parties in districts with income (measured by assets such as a car, fridge, water heater etc), giving donations to charity and paying tax, and ranging in religiosity (measured by number of daily prayers, if any).

Personally interviewing a cross-section of Tunisian voters supported the model's theoretical predictions about the influence of income on preferences for religious political parties.

After controlling for the level of religiosity, among the poorest voters a small increase in socio-economic status such as the ownership of one or more domestic asset (such as a fridge) increases the probability of voting for the Islamic party Ennahdha by more than 10 percentage points.

This effect reduces to zero around the sample average of asset ownership and becomes negative for the richer voters. Furthermore, living in a district richer than the median district increases the probability of voting for Ennahdha by a further 10 percentage points.

As a comparison, a voter who prays every single day is 20 percentage points more likely to vote for Ennahdha than one who never prays. Therefore, belonging to the middle class and living in a rich district together affect the decision to vote for the religious party more than being religious.

Far from being an isolated case, the study shows that the voting pattern it uncovered in Tunisia is common to several elections in Muslim democracies, namely Egypt, and Turkey in the 1990s. In all these elections, the probability of voting for the religious party increases with income and is greater in richer districts.


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