A Democratic Iraq: Esse Quam Videri

Andy Mason, London, England, January 26, 2005

American and Iraqi soldiers stand guard in Hilla

American and Iraqi soldiers stand guard outside the Regional Democracy Center in Hilla on Jan. 16, 2005. (Photo Hrvoje Polan / AFP-Getty Images)

Are the elections in Iraq a storm gathering on the horizon, or the light at the end of a tunnel? The U.S.-led coalition believes it is the latter. Those with knowledge of the current situation, however, understand that although the elections do enable Iraqis to have their say, all the elections bring to the near future is further bloodshed and perhaps a deeper stalemate.

The handover of sovereignty in June of last year was in essence an anti-climax to 18 months of fighting, and the longest lasting memory of that event is Paul Bremer’s rapid exit.

So is this what the elections will herald? An apparent democracy? A Sunni minority negating the vote by refusing to follow any Shia-lead government? Kurds seeking independence? A people united only by their wish to see an end to the occupation?

If the end goal is a free and democratic Iraq, then that is what it should be — not appear to be.

Democracy — U.S. Style

If events in Iraq continue in the same vain in the lead up to the elections on Jan. 30, then as the C.I.A. stated late last year, the best that can be hoped for is “tenuous stability,” but with “further fragmentation and extremism … and a trend toward civil war.”

With 9,000 to 10,000 polling stations it is likely that a percentage of the population — small, though significant — will be targeted by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and others. The prospect of such an inescapable truth is likely to cause many to forego their democratic right to vote.

If a large enough percentage stays away or abstains due to pressure or religious orientation then the ensuing democracy will be, in essence, flawed, as the government will not be representative of the people.

One can only stand by previous examples. Afghanistan is a recent case in point.

In the Loya Jirga of June 2002, about 1,500 delegates gathered to vote for an interim president who would undertake the post in the lead up to full elections. In spite of pressure from U.S.-backed warlords, over half of the delegates produced a statement backing the previously exiled monarch, Mohammad Zahir Shah, and not U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai.

The vote was immediately postponed. Meanwhile Zahir Shah was “cajoled” into releasing a statement iterating that he would not undertake “any active role in the government.”

Two days later, the Loya Jirga resumed with three candidates to choose from for the post of interim president. The first was an unknown, the second was a woman, and the third was the well known, and U.S.-backed, Hamid Karzai.

The outcome was a little less than predictable.

Even more recently, the Afghan Electoral Commission (A.E.C.) came under considerable U.S. pressure to keep the October 2004 date for the national presidential elections, and only to postpone the parliamentary elections until April 2005.

The A.E.C. actually wanted to postpone both sets of elections. However, delaying the presidential elections would have meant there was a chance for an alternative candidate to mount a challenge to the incumbent Karzai.

The U.S. could not take that chance. The result, again, predictable.

This form of democracy does not support the true sense of the word. Limited options and “symbolic,” unknown candidates are not a freedom of choice, but a channelled democracy leading to a favourable result for the U.S.

Back in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme cleric of Iraq — a man who has the ability to make or break the upcoming elections, and who refuses to back any particular party or take an active political role — has spoken out several times against the occupation and the groundwork being laid down for the election.

One very prudent point was his disregard for the plan by the U.S.-affiliated parties to create a “consensus slate” of candidates. This in essence would lead to an election where voters would have to decide between one major party and a choice of several small, disjointed independents, which, in essence, would be no choice at all.

Democracy — Iraq Style?

For arguments sake, let me suggest that on Election Day there is a 60 percent electorate turnout. This would give the ensuing government some form of legitimacy.

The Sunni’s will not be without representation. Sunni-dominated parties include the Iraqi Islamic Party (I.I.P.) with a power base of predominantly exiles and a leader in current president Ghazi al-Yawer. However, the most influential Sunni group, the Muslim Scholar’s Board, has called for the election to be boycotted by all Sunnis, and the only other possibilities for the Sunnis lack both the organization and the support structure of the Shia- or Kurdish-led parties.

Add to this the fact that the Sunni parties will require the electorate from their strongholds to cast a vote if any success is to come. However, unfortunately for them the Sunni stronghold is obviously within the Sunni triangle — an area of Iraq with the worst security problems, and under constant threat from insurgents. In this area, as the Economist put it, “many of the officials charged with distributing voter-registration cards have quietly returned or dumped them lest they be killed.”

Thus, many Sunnis from the I.I.P. have called for the election to be delayed by at least six months so that a more secure environment can be created for the Sunni voter. But the Shia majority foresees a Shia-based government for the future of Iraq, and thus declares that the Jan. 30 date is non-negotiable.

The U.S. is relatively restricted to this date so as to uphold Security Council Resolution 1546, which clearly states that democratic elections need to be held by January 2005.

The Shia’s are in a relatively good position, this is undeniable.

A national list system even with a good Sunni turnout would favor a coalition of half a dozen parties, most of which would be Shia dominated. They would also include Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord and Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s more popular Dawa Party. If Moktada al-Sadr decides to drop the sword and become a peaceful politician (not as far fetched as it may have seemed nine months ago), then Shia towns across central and southern Iraq will more than likely fall within his sphere of influence, including, of course, Sadr City in northeast Baghdad (a two-million-Shia stronghold). Although his presence is unwelcome by the Americans — due to his anti-occupation rhetoric — they would rather see him in politics than have him backing another rebellion.

The Kurds actually seem like the only group who have parties that are both pro-American and popular. These parties, controlled by the Barzani and Talabani clans, run three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces and are only watched cautiously by the Turks in the north, who fear an independent Kurdistan on their border.

This eventuality is possible if a struggle emerges between the Kurds and the Shias in the new government over the constitution and electoral system for the full elections in 2006. Kirkuk would likely be at the centre of the struggle due to its multi-ethnic background and oil wealth. The Kurds therefore could have an ulterior motive for democracy and an upcoming victory in the elections. If fighting continues in Shia and Sunni strongholds to the south, then a surge of pro-independence fervor will sweep through the Kurdish populace and the Americans are then more likely to support an ultra-autonomous Kurdistan so as to deal with the all out civil war in the south.

Countdown to the Conundrum

So, is the democracy the U.S. is striving to implement for the freedom and progression of the Iraqi people, or is it one that will secure deals favorable to U.S. companies and enable American access to Iraq’s raw materials that are a prerequisite to the sustenance of the U.S. economy?

Ordinary Iraqis are torn between their desire for reform and their fear of what that reform may bring. This conflict is compounded by their resentment of the occupation.

For the Iraqi democracy to be successful, the government needs to be one voted for by all the peoples and contain representatives from the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish areas.

The U.S. should not attempt to sway the election in any way — not even to negate the formation of an Islamic Republic. It is unlikely that such an eventuality would occur because those with real power in Iraq, like Sistani, do not desire an Islamic Theocracy similar to that of Iran.

However, it is also prudent to note that Islamist parties have participated in elections in eight Arab countries in the last ten years with, admittedly, varying degrees of government interference, but there is no evidence from these elections that the Islamists would have succeeded in a freer environment.

One must also consider the European Union’s next “member-to-be,” Turkey.

An Islamist party is in power there and has been for some time, and with an improving human rights record, and a growing economy, Turkey is becoming a benchmark by which other Arab and potentially pro-Islamist democracies can measure their own progress.

As King Abdullah II of Jordan wrote, “successful change comes from within. … This success demands the energy and engagement of people across society, including teachers, entrepreneurs, community leaders, public servants and others. Imposing a process from outside — one not rooted in people’s history, communities and cultures — cannot generate the commitment that progress requires.”

* Esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem.

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