The ballot box beats the coffin
The brave voters of Iraq defied the terrorists and proved the doom-mongers wrong

By Amir Taheri
Published January 31st 2005 in Assyrian International News Agency
AS IRAQIS voted in their first truly free election, they may have noticed a slogan on some walls in Baghdad and parts of the Sunni Triangle: Min al-sanduq il-al-sanduq. Its literal translation is “from the box into the box”. But the message is starker: “From the ballot box to the coffin.”

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of the jihadists in Iraq, issued a statement before polling day threatening: “We shall kill anyone associated with elections: candidates, monitors, and voters.” The tone of those who opposed yesterday’s election was set by Yussuf al-Ayyeri, the al-Qaeda theoretician, who in a book published in 2003 described Iraq as “the principal battleground between Islam and the forces of Unbelief”.

“It is not the American war machine that should be of the utmost concern to Muslims. What threatens the future of Islam, in fact its survival, is American democracy,” al-Ayyeri wrote. Last month Osama bin Laden called on jihadists to disrupt Iraq’s elections on the ground that only Allah has the power to legislate.

The jihadists have been as good as their words. Al-Zarqawi’s followers alone were responsible for more than a dozen suicide bombings on the “centres of infidelity and apostasy” (polling stations). At least 35 people lost their lives to terrorists yesterday; before Sunday, scores of election workers and candidates were murdered, and buildings belonging to half a dozen political parties were blown up.

But the determination of the terrorists to disrupt the election was matched by the majority of Iraqis who wanted democracy to prevail. Turnout was higher than had been expected at more than 60 per cent. Another sign of that determination was that nearly 8,000 men and women stood for election on more than 400 lists of candidates, sponsored by 111 political parties.

Yesterday’s voting was for three separate elections. The most important was to choose a 275-member National Assembly whose principal task is to write a constitution that will be submitted to a referendum next summer. In the second set of elections, voters chose members of municipal councils, creating Iraq’s first directly elected local government structures. The third election was for the Kurdish regional assembly, in accordance with the vision of the new Iraq as a federal state.

For more than a year Saddam nostalgics, and others who want Iraq to fail because they hate the United States and, or George W. Bush, predicted that these elections would not take place because Iraq would be plunged into civil war long before. Now that the elections have gone ahead, these same critics, joined by doomsters suffering from Euro-pessimism, claim that yesterday’s election will signal the start of a bloody civil war. Their claim is based on the prediction that the emergence of a Shia majority would provoke the Arab Sunnis into revolt and push the Kurds towards secession. None of that is going to happen.

Iraq’s system of proportional representation ensures that no group can obtain a straight majority in the National Assembly. The candidates’ lists are not based on confessional or ethnic criteria but on political calculations and compromises. A majority of the members of the National Assembly may well be Shia by birth, unsurprisingly since the Shia account for 60 per cent of Iraq’s population. But this does not mean the formation of a monolithic Shia bloc.

The list supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad al-Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shia clerics, includes Arab Sunnis and Kurds. The most militant secularist list, proposed by the Iraqi Communist Party, consists mostly of Shia. So divided are the Shia parties that the two biggest blocs in the coming assembly may well turn out to be Kurdish.

Opponents of the election pinned their hopes on a massive boycott by Arab Sunnis. That did not happen. Turnout was lower in Sunni areas, but even in strongholds of the insurgency, such as Fallujah, a steady stream of voters defied the intimidation. At least 30 mainly Sunni lists, including that of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest political organisation of Arab Sunnis, were in the race.

Without meaning to, the jihadists’ violent campaign may well have rendered Iraq a service by forcing a majority of Iraqis to set aside their differences — ethnic, regional or confessional — and develop a pluralist system based on free elections. Although the outside world has focused on the car bombs and other terrorist shenanigans in the past year, the jihadist campaign was never a serious long-term threat, if only because it lacked a popular base.

The real battles over the country’s future will start when the results of the election are known; then the parties who sit in the assembly will have the legitimacy to raise the issues that deeply affect their communities and supporters. Of course, one issue will be the status of the US-led coalition forces and the length of their stay. But that is just one issue among the many that motivated Iraqis to vote; what should be the relationship between the mosque and the State, the rights of women, how the oil revenue and water resources should be shared out, how much autonomy should the Kurds in the north have.

But these battles will be fought inside the debating chambers of the assembly, on the campaign stump for a constitutional referendum, and then a new parliament to be elected before the end of this year. The ballot box won’t lead to the coffin; it is the cradle of a new Iraq.