Iraq's illegitimate election did not justify the invasion, nor did it
make occupation popular
Friday February 11, 2005
Iraq is a "totalitarian state", and that's official, according to the
logic of Condoleezza Rice this week. Maybe it was because she was in
carefree Paris. Maybe it was because she was having breakfast with a
bunch of French intellectuals. But the new US secretary of state let
down her political hair and stunned the company with the looseness of
She was talking about Iran, the latest Bush administration target for
regime change. She used to call Iran's Islamic republic
"authoritarian", she told them, but since the parliamentary polls last
spring, in which candidates at one end of the spectrum were off the
ballot, Iran had moved to being "totalitarian".
She did not draw any comparison with Iraq, of course, let alone with
Saudi Arabia (which embarked on a men-only, no-parties election
yesterday). But the similarities are obvious. If Iran qualifies as
totalitarian because it holds an election in which voters had only a
limited choice, then the same is true of Iraq, where parties and
movements which want an immediate end to the occupation were off the
Queues of voters are not the defining issue for a decent election. In
Iran last year they were so long that in many places polling stations
had to stay open an extra four hours to give everyone a chance. Nor is
turnout the decisive marker. Voters take part for a host of reasons.
El Salvador held an election in 1982, which Reagan administration
officials such as John Negroponte, its then ambassador in nearby
Honduras and now Washington's man in Iraq, touted as a glorious day
for freedom because guerrillas attacked a handful of polling stations
and people carried on voting regardless. On the lips of establishment
TV anchors the generalisation for the whole poll was "they defied the
terrorists", as though violence was pervasive.
A different picture emerged in a small town I visited north of the
capital, San Salvador, as the polls were about to close. The queue
broke down as frantic would-be voters stormed the desk to try to get
their ID cards stamped. They were not specially interested in any of
the parties on offer, they told reporters. The government had made a
big issue of getting a high turnout, and they were terrified the army
would brutalise them if they could not prove they had voted.
Every election is specific. Long before the Iraqi poll it was clear
that Kurds and Shias would vote in large numbers. Their areas have not
seen much violence, and both groups saw the poll as a chance to
reflect their collective strength in the constitution-writing process.
So there should have been no surprise that queues built up.
Fear of not voting was also a factor, though much less than in El
Salvador in 1982. "I tore up my ballot paper," said a young woman who
works for a US government-funded NGO in Basra. "But I wanted my finger
inked, in case the religious parties check on people in the street."
Others abstained for different reasons. "Many of my friends will not
be voting," Sayed Mudhaffer, a Basra official of the Writers' Union,
told me. "Some don't know which list to vote for, because there hasn't
been enough campaigning on what they stand for. Some think that
because the United Nations isn't supervising, it won't be fair or
His last point is well taken. As the old saying has it, what matters
is not who votes, but who counts. Because of security fears there were
even fewer international monitors in Iraq than in Afghanistan last
year, and most stayed only a few minutes in the polling places they
visited. They saw very little.
Why is it taking as much as two weeks to come up with a result in
Iraq? In the polling station, where I watched the count, when the
doors closed last week, they tabulated all 1,500 votes in just over
three hours. Everything seemed above board and the results were given
out "on background". But they had to be sent to Baghdad for "checking"
before a public declaration.
In many other polling stations there were no observers, not even Iraqi
ones. In Basra, even the representative of prime minister Iyad
Allawi's party complained of the scope for fraud. Waleed Ketan said he
had only been given credentials for 134 monitors while there were 386
polling stations in the province. His point was given substance by the
head of the Basra election commission (who is widely accused of links
to one of the main religious parties). Asked on three different
occasions how many monitors he had accredited, he answered variously
4,000, 6,000, and 8,000.
The Iraqi election was, in fact, both normal and abnormal. In Basra,
many Shias treated it as historic, saying it marked the real end to
Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Embarrassed and humiliated that
foreigners rather than Iraqis had toppled him, they seemed proud that
the election was an Iraqi show. I heard no one thanking Bush and
I also heard no one describe his or her vote as defiance of terrorism,
let alone the insurgency. Blair called it "a blow right to the heart
of global terrorism". Maybe a voter in Baghdad might have said such a
thing. It was not the mood in the Shia south.
Most gave mundane reasons for their vote: patriotism, a sense of duty,
concern over joblessness and power cuts, and the hope that the
election might be a first step towards change. There was also a strong
underlying feeling that having an elected government could hasten the
restoration of sovereignty and an end to the occupation. This was
certainly the view of those supporters of the radical cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr, who decided that voting mattered more than the risk of
legitimising the occupation.
Although some Shias say they supported the US offensive against the
largely Sunni city of Falluja, and explain their feelings in terms of
revenge for Ba'athist (seen as Sunni) oppression, it is more common to
find Shias who deplore the talk of Sunni versus Shia conflict. They
blame the foreign occupiers for stressing sectarian identity, an issue
which, they say, has never been a matter of significance for ordinary
So this was certainly not an election which justified the invasion
after the event or gave the occupation some kind of popularity among
Shias. Nor did it reduce the pressure for a withdrawal of foreign
troops and the dismantling of the bases the US is building. The main
Sunni parties boycotted the poll because the Americans refused to give
a timetable. The Shia parties will have to explain to their voters
what they are doing to get one.
As Iraqis know, the main killers in Iraq are not the insurgents but
the Americans. The Iraqi ministry of health's latest statistics show
that in the last six months of 2004 they killed almost three times as
many people as the insurgents did. On this issue, just as on the
elections, TV images usually simplify, if not falsify, the story.
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