Guidelines for Muslim when Voting in Municipal Elections
A Rashied Omar
On May 18, 2011 South Africa will convene municipal elections to elect new local councils for all municipalities in the country. Municipal elections are held every five years, and this election will be only the third since the advent of non-racial democratic rule in South Africa in 1994. In my view, local government elections are as important if not more than national elections since they facilitate the process of taking democracy down to the grassroots level.
As conscientious Muslims and responsible South Africans citizens it is important for us to positively engage the public processes in our country. In post-Apartheid South Africa Muslims are recognised as equal citizens and partners in the shaping of the destiny of our new nation. I would like to provide some guidelines for voting in the upcoming municipal elections.
Guidelines for Voting
First, Islamic teachings on good governance, public policy and political strategy (al-siyasa al-shar`iyya) does not provide specific and detailed instructions on how public policies or political strategies should be applied or executed in society. Instead, it tends to provide only general principles and guidelines. Three of the most important of these principles are shura or mutual consultation, `adl or justice and hisbah or accountability. These three principles should feature prominently in our evaluation of the manifestos and histories of political parties.
Second, consonant with the above Islamic ethico-legal position there is no explicit textual evidence (nass) either from the Qur’an nor Sunna (prophetic tradition) that can be used to substantiate the view that Muslim participation in democracy is proscribed or that Muslims in South Africa should vote only for so-called Muslim parties. A number of Muslim scholars, such as Abdulaziz Sachedina in his book The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, have cogently demonstrated that Islam and Democracy are indeed compatible. Moreover, the current widespread uprisings against authoritarianism and dictatorial rule in the Muslim World are clear evidence that Sachedina’s view is not idiosyncratic. Muslim scholars have pointed out that both the Islamic concept of shura and democracy arise from the central consideration that collective deliberation is more likely to lead to a fair and sound result for the social good than individual preference. It is therefore my considered view that Muslims should be encouraged to participate in the May municipal elections and vote for a political party of their choice.
Third, when one votes for a particular party, it does not necessarily mean that one agrees completely with all of their ideology or policies. Rather the intention should be that the candidate (or party) will be of help to the whole community and represents the best alternative among the various options. Muslim jurists (fuqaha) have always advocated the principle of realism represented in the concept of akhaff al-dararayn – lesser of the two evils. In other words, if the major part of the manifesto of a political party is deemed non-objectionable in terms of Islamic ethics, then it is acceptable for Muslims to vote for such a party.
Fourth, voters are advised to study the histories of each party, the status and integrity of their candidates, their past and present policies and the promises they make in their electoral manifestos. Voters should further insist on accountability from their political parties and ensure that they make good their electoral promises. The party which in their estimate best resonates with the Islamic value system and advances the cause of the poor and the marginalized should be supported.
Fifth, if any political party is found to be overtly and unequivocally hostile to Islam, it would not be in the best interests of Muslims to vote for such a political party. Moreover, Muslims should especially not join or support a political party based on racial lines since non-racialism is one of the hallmarks of Islam. The Qur’an regards differences in the pigmentation of skin and differences in languages as a sign of the existence of God. Discrimination against people on the basis of the colour of their skin or language is tantamount to denying the existence of God (Surah al-Rum, Chapter 30, Verse 23).
It is my considered view that the role of the `ulama – the Muslim scholars and religious leadership, should be to facilitate dialogue among Muslim representatives of various parties and to encourage the observance of proper adab al-ikhtilaf - in their debates and contestations about who to vote for. There should be neither acrimonious moral judgments nor extreme vilifications of partners/opponents in the voting contest. Violations of the ground rules of adab al-ikhtilaf must be severely censured.
Furthermore, the role of `ulama should be that of the nation’s moral conscience alongside other organizations in civil society. The `ulama have a duty to exhort and challenge government whenever they fail to fulfill their political mandate. Government officials are elected by the nation’s citizens, and all citizens – including religious leaders - have a political right and obligation to censure and criticize them when necessary. At the same time, civil society also has a responsibility to support and collaborate with government in areas of mutual concern and benefit. The only real guarantee for healthy democracy is that of strong civil society that can hold those in power accountable for their moral and political mandate.
Judging from the enthusiastic manner in which the Muslim community participated in South Africa’s previous elections it would seem that by and large they are engaging the South African democratic process positively and strategically.
We pray and make du’a that Allah, the Sublime, will guide our country at this time of the third municipal elections. May Allah guide us to cast our votes for the best candidates and parties that will not only serve the interests of Muslims but of all the poor and marginalised citizens in our country.