Iraq Election: Wider Significance

By Amir Taheri
Published January 21st 2005 in Assyrian International News Agency
Talk to Iraqis on any subject these days and you are likely to hear one word: ba'ad!

This is short for the phrase "ba'ad al-intikhabat" which means "after the elections." Weddings are postponed until after the elections, as are business contracts, poetry recitals, the opening of new plays, the start of the football season, and, of course, the rebuilding of towns and villages wrecked by months of insurgency. Also put on hold are big projects financed by the $18 billion US aid package and more than $6 billion pledged by Europe, Japan and the Arab states.

Never have so many people pinned so much hope on a single day of voting, Jan. 30, 2005, that is to give Iraq its first freely elected Parliament plus provincial and regional councils.

The election will not only set the course for the 25 million Iraqis but could also determine a new balance of power in the Middle East. Beyond Iraq, the election will confirm or challenge the United States' status as a "superpower" capable of reshaping the regional status quo. President George W. Bush has vowed to bring the Middle East into "the global democratic mainstream", with Iraq as the starting point. Success could boost his prestige and encourage local democratic forces. Failure would mark the beginning of a decline in American influence, and revitalize forces determined to keep Muslim nations out of the modern world.

The determination of the Iraqi interim government to hold the election is matched by the equally firm resolve of the insurgents and their terrorist allies to disrupt the voting. In parts of Baghdad and several towns in the so-called Sunni Triangle, northwest of the capital, a slogan has appeared on some walls: " Min Al-Sanduq il Al-sanduq! " (From the ballot box into the coffin.)

To make sure things go smoothly, the US has brought in 15000 more troops and plans to intensify patrolling for the next six weeks. Still, the 160,000 or so American and coalition troops represent a small force in a country the size of France with some 18000 villages and almost 300 small, medium, and large towns and cities.

Over a year of efforts to create a new Iraqi Army and police has not produced the desired results. On paper, the interim government employs almost 200,000 soldiers and policemen. But Iraqi officials admit in private that no more than three battalions are reliable.

Despite almost daily terrorist attacks most Iraqis appear determined that the election should take place. Almost 75 percent of those eligible to vote under a UN-established list have registered. Over 6000 candidates, from Communists to monarchists and passing-by democrats and Islamists, are contesting the 275 seats of the National Assembly whose main task is to write a new constitution.

Campaigning for the election is most intense in the Shiite and Kurdish areas where the insurgents, despite a number of spectacular attacks, have failed to make an impression. Meetings are held in mosques, schools, village halls and the homes of the candidates where would-be voters are often treated to free meals. In parts of southern Iraq big tribal tents double as town halls for the election.

Much of the debate takes place through the 50 or so privately owned talk-show radios, especially in and around Baghdad, and in the columns of the 200 or so new newspapers and magazines that have appeared since liberation in April 2003.

"We know that there are criminals determined to blow us up," says Abdul-Hussein Hindawi, head of the independent Electoral Commission. "But we cannot allow fear to shape our future. Iraqis know that they must take risks to build a free society."

Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of the Shiite clergy, has issued a fatwa (edict), urging everyone to vote. "Taking part in the elections and building a democratic system are religious duties," he asserts.

Sistani has endorsed a joint Shiite list in the race but insists that the clergy must not seek a direct role in the government.

The election, based on proportional representation, treats Iraq as a single constituency. Under current projections this could lead to a hung Parliament in which the three Shiite lists would represent the largest bloc but would still be unable to form a majority without some Kurdish and Sunni support.

Most of the participants have already approved a draft constitution designed to turn Iraq into a democratic, pluralist and federal state. They have also agreed that at least 25 percent of the seats should go to women. But there are divisions over other issues, including the role of the state in the economy, the sharing of oil revenues and water resources, the future of the city of Kirkuk, claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, and the relationship between secular legislation and Islamic Shariah (theological law.)

These are issues that intensely interest a majority of Iraqis, hence the current view that the turnout will be larger than the insurgents fear.

" I am hungry to vote," says Ghazban Fayyad, owner of a bookstall in downtown Baghdad. "All I hope is that I am not blown up before I cast my ballot."

Iraq today is the scene of several inter-related conflicts each of which could kill hopes of stabilization let alone democratization.

One conflict pits the Shiites, some 60 percent of the population, against Sunnis who account for about 15 percent. Some Sunnis are opposed to election because it could end their dream of regaining the dominant position they had in government since the British turned Iraq into a state in 1921. The current forecast is that a majority of people will go to the polls in all but four of Iraq's 18 provinces. The four provinces, all in the Sunni Triangle, account for some seven percent of the total population. One idea is to keep some seats open for them, and hold elections later in the year after security improves.

A second conflict pits the Kurds, some 20 percent of the population, against the combined forces of Arab Shiites and Sunnis. The ultimate dream of the Kurds is to have their own state. But, knowing this to be impossible in the foreseeable future, they are determined to secure as much autonomy as possible. Arab Shiites and Sunnis see this as a threat to central government authority in Baghdad.

A third conflict is underway between the US-led coalition on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other. Iran and Syria fear that, were the US to succeed in Iraq, they could be the next targets for regime change. They are, therefore, doing all they can to make sure that the Iraqi election does not produce a pro-American majority.

The best-case scenario for Iraq in 2005 will run along these lines:

The election is held producing a Parliament that, in turn, will choose a new government of national unity. Enjoying people-based legitimacy such a government would deprive the insurgency of its claim of fighting against foreign occupation. The US and coalition allies would be able to scale down their military presence while accelerating the recruitment, training and deployment of the new Iraqi armed forces and police. That would make it possible for the US-led coalition forces to be withdrawn by 2007, the most realistic date for such a move.

Also in the best case scenario Iraq could mobilize its immense manpower and natural resources, to rebuild its economy. A little noticed report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), issued last November, shows that even now the Iraqi economy is, relatively speaking, performing better than anyone else's in the Arab Middle East. The report makes a predication that some might find audacious: In the next decade, Iraq could become the engine of growth for the region.

The IMF experts are not being frivolous.

Iraq sits on top of the world's second largest oil deposits. It is the only Middle Eastern nation with substantial water resources and arable land. At the same time Iraq has the highest rates of literacy in the Arab world plus a vast pool of skilled workers at most levels. With a minimum of security, Iraq could also attract up to 10 million Shiite pilgrims a year from all over the world. (Between June 2003 and June 2004 some seven million foreign pilgrims visited Iraq.)

The worst-case scenario is equally stark:

Widespread violence could disrupt the election while mass Sunni boycott casts doubt on the results. The insurgents could extend their attacks to Shiite areas, provoking Shiite counterattacks. This could lead to a de facto partition of the country or intermittent ethnic war of the kind Lebanon experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. President George W. Bush may try to stick it out until the end of his term. But his successor, lacking the stomach or the desire to stay the course, may galumph out of the quagmire. Then the Kurds may decide to set up a break away state, provoking clashes with Turkey and Iran. Iraq could become a black hole sucking the Middle East into the unknown.

Which of the two scenarios is more likely? I think the best-case scenario is more likely. Nevertheless, let's wait for "ba'ad", after the election.