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Free choice under coercion?

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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The elections in Iraq do not amount to its democratisation and the expression of the sovereign will of its people. They lack legitimacy and do not alter the fundamental facts of occupation and unfreedom.

THE hype built around the January 30 elections in Iraq, with television visuals showing voters queuing up at polling booths and the country's election commission announcing an impressive 72 per cent turnout just 90 minutes before balloting closed, seems to have survived the sobering disclosures that followed. At least, that is the case with two groups of people: President George W. Bush and his sycophants, and closer home, votaries of a vigorous Indian "engagement" with, and involvement in, Iraq as a junior ally and collaborator of the United States.

Bush could barely contain himself when he declared the elections a "resounding success" and said: Iraq's "men and women have taken rightful control of their country's destiny and ... chosen a future of freedom and peace... Today the people of Iraq have spoken to the world and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the centre of the Middle East... "

Bush supporters in and outside the media have been similarly ecstatic about the elections - although it was soon disclosed by the same election commission that the turnout was not 72 per cent, but a moderate 57 per cent, and that it was extremely low in areas inhabited by Sunni Muslims (who comprise a fifth of Iraq's population).

Some commentators in the Indian media have out-Bushed Bush in declaring that Iraq has moved decisively, irreversibly, towards democratisation. According to one, the "emergence of a third democratic country in the Islamic world next to Turkey and Malaysia" has already begun. The process might be coercive and guided by U.S. self-interest, but it is real and unstoppable. They hold that this revolutionary transformation of Iraq - virtually in a single day - confronts India with a historic choice: support the newly begun "democratisation of Islamic regimes" and promote its own national interest, or become irrelevant.

At least three dubious propositions are involved here. One, elections irrevocably put a country on the path to democracy; they are the determining and essential content of democratisation. Two, these Iraq elections were legitimate, credible and largely free and fair on international criteria. And three, the elections are the first step towards the full transfer of sovereignty and power to the Iraqi people; they bring nearer the end of Iraq's occupation.

The first proposition derives from a profound misunderstanding. Elections are only an instrument or tool of democracy, albeit an important one. They are not its content or essence. All kinds of regimes and rulers, with questionable respect for the will of the people, have routinely organised elections without producing a decisive shift to democratisation. Examples abound from countries as different as Algeria and Afghanistan to Zaire and Zimbabwe through Bulgaria, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Russia, Syria and Ukraine. Indeed, Saddam Hussein held an election only in 2002, in which he was the sole candidate. He won with a thumping majority. Elections can sometimes produce extremely undemocratic outcomes, as with Mussolini in the 1920s, and Hitler in the 1930s.

Countless colonial, imperial and occupation regimes have used elections as a means of containing extreme discontent, co-opting domestic elites, or giving a limited say to the subject population in the management of local affairs - short of sovereignty. Elections were held in colonial India to the Viceroy's Council as well as provincial governments. No one then claimed that India was a sovereign democracy.

Similarly, post-war France held numerous elections in Algeria while occupying it until liberation in 1962. This did not make French rule popular; nor did it produce the illusion of democracy among the Algerian people. On the contrary, the struggle for liberation got strengthened.

The U.S. too organised elections in South Vietnam in 1967, with an 83 per cent turnout, in which one puppet was replaced by another. The New York Times reported: "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign... . A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes... . The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon government."

The purpose was defeated soundly. The Tet Offensive followed. The U.S. was forced to quit Vietnam eight years later. People vote under conditions of occupation for instrumental and tactical reasons, because they can influence outcomes, or choose the lesser of two evils, not because they believe the elections are legitimate, free and fair, or conducted with unimpeachable intent.

DEMOCRACY is about much more than elections and legislative majorities. It has equally to do with sovereignty in decision-making, popular control over political processes, constitutions and the rule of law, separation of powers between different organs of the state and, above all, fundamental rights and freedoms, including institutional protection for minority groups and views. In fact, what distinguishes democracy from majoritarianism is checks and balances to make electoral majorities accountable and prevent them from riding roughshod over other groups.

To argue that Iraq has moved decisively towards democratisation is to assume that these institutions and checks and balances are dispensable - a colossal offence to democratic sensibilities. It is also to ignore the overwhelming reality of today's Iraq: an unjust invasion followed by occupation, extensive social and economic destruction, people's impoverishment, absence of the basic amenities of life, acute scarcity of water, electricity, jobs and functioning schools, and pervasive fear and insecurity. Leave alone the police, even elite National Guard personnel are too scared to reveal their identity: they wear Balaclavas.

It stretches credulity to argue that the average Iraqi, who has suffered at least as much under the occupation as under Saddam Hussein, cannot comprehend the causes of the suffering, oppression, humiliation, including callousness of the occupation powers, their plunder of resources, and painfully slow post-war reconstruction. It makes even less sense to presume that most Iraqis are unconcerned by the fact, now acknowledged by the U.S., that stories were cooked up about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction to find an excuse to go to war - against the will of the international community, or that they cannot attribute this colossal deception to the dubious nature of Washington's intentions, designs and methods.

Not many Iraqis are taken in by words such as freedom and democracy. As an Iraqi analyst, Sami Ramadani, asks, how can one square these words "with the brutal reality of occupation, martial law, a U.S.-appointed election commission and secret candidates?... The Iraqis are increasingly united in their determination to end the occupation. Whether they participated in or boycotted [the elections], this political bond will soon reassert itself... "

The January 30 elections fail on numerous criteria: freedom of choice, fairness, transparency and integrity. They were not monitored by independent observers. The media were not allowed near the polling booths except in a few "showcase" locations. The sole source of information was the election commission, which is not accountable to the Iraqi or global public. The commission never published a voters' list, nor registered eligible electors.

Its bungling on January 30 casts doubt on its credibility. It revised the estimate of the polling turnout, but did not disclose how it arrived at this number, which corresponds to eight million out of the 14 million eligible voters casting their ballots. But, according to the same commission, there were 18 million eligible voters. Besides, only 265,000 exiled Iraqis voted out of a registered total of 280,000. Yet, on a good estimate, the exiled community numbers about 4 million, and has about 2 million ballots.

The issue of free choice becomes important because the bulk of the candidates contesting for the Transitional National Assembly (TNA) refused to identify themselves. As many as 84 per cent of the United Iraqi Alliance's (UIA) nominees did not - despite the Alliance (backed by the Grand Ayotollah Ali al-Sistani) reportedly being the front-runner.

The election has created new problems too. The pattern of voting across different ethnic groups raises serious questions about the representative character of the emerging legislatures. The bulk of the Sunnis boycotted the elections. By all informed accounts, Shias voted in large numbers largely because of Ali al-Sistani's appeal to defy the U.S. and vote for a list that opposes the occupation. This cannot be even remotely interpreted as approval of Washington's plans for Iraq. The Kurds voted in large numbers to defend their existing autonomy and advance their claim for national self-determination within any future political arrangement.

The election bears testimony to, and has exacerbated, a Shia-Sunni divide. This is an ugly part of occupied Iraq's reality. It has ominous implications for Iraq's future unity and stability. It will further fuel adventurist thinking among important policymakers and policy-shapers in the U.S. about partitioning Iraq along ethnic lines.

In the short run, the U.S. will try to make up for poor Sunni representation in the legislature by "topping" up government with its own Sunni nominees. Already, the UIA's Husain Shahristani (a former nuclear scientist and a confidant of Al-Sistani) has declared that the Alliance would like a Sunni president, who must be elected, along with two vice-presidents, with a two-thirds TNA majority. (They together then appoint the party or coalition to head the government with its choice of Prime Minister.)

How deal-making will proceed after the TNA is declared elected is unclear. Shahristani has sharply attacked existing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and accused his Defence Minister of serious corruption. There is speculation that the UIA will support Ahmad Chalabi as Prime Minister. That could open up new rifts among the Shias and leave a big political mess.

The third issue is no less important. Will Iraq's new government enjoy qualitatively greater freedom from the U.S.? Is its domain of control and room for manoeuvre likely to expand? Will Bush live up to the promise he recently made, that U.S. troops would leave Iraq if asked to do so by its elected government?

Bush has himself revised his pledge. He now rejects "an artificial timetable" and says that the U.S. will withdraw only when Iraq becomes "democratic, representative of all its people at peace with its neighbours and able to defend itself". It is impossible to predict if, and how long, this will take, and whether the process can be controlled. But this will not happen anytime soon.

The U.S. seems to be digging in its heels in for a long haul. It is building 12 massive military bases in Iraq. The Iraqi army has no tanks, no warplanes, none of the equipment or training necessary to provide security. So long as it remains feeble, Washington will have a "security" rationale for staying on. And it controls the purse strings. No wonder Iraq's current president Ghazi al Yawer said it would be "nonsense" to call for an end to the occupation.

PAST experience with occupations has not been a happy one. A Carnegie Endowment-Foreign Policy special report presents a mixed picture. The U.S. has so far conducted more than 200 military interventions abroad. Of these, only 16 were "nation-building" attempts. Of the 16, only four qualify as successes (Japan, Germany, Panama-1989, Grenada-1983). Secondly, 12 of the 16 attempts were unilateral. Ten of them failed.

Apart from overwhelming military presence, the U.S. totally controls Iraq's legal institutions, its economy and its political life. Scores of decrees passed by the U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer remain in force. They cannot be amended except by huge legislative majorities. They include the interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law (Iraq's basic statute), and measures pertaining to privatisation, a shockingly monopolistic patent regime, and so on.

The U.S. has created a structure in which it will be the prosecutor, judge and jury, and where all the dice are loaded in its favour. It will take years and some extraordinary initiatives to change this. Even in the short run, it seems unlikely that Washington will allow a truly sovereign and independent Iraqi regime to emerge if its actions are likely to clash with its own interests. For instance, if a Shia-majority government improves relations with Shia-dominated Iran, it will displease the U.S. which sees Iran as belonging to the "axis of evil". Shia self-assertion in other parts of West Asia too could destabilise political equations and regimes beholden to Washington.

Far from effecting a genuine transfer of power to the Iraqi people, the U.S. may prolong dependence, in which Iraq becomes its de facto protectorate. This makes the ambivalence in India's official statements on Iraq extremely puzzling. Although India emphasised "the restoration of full sovereignty to the Iraqi people as a necessary precondition for peace and stability", it also said: "The holding of elections... is a noteworthy development. Preliminary developments about the turnout of voters are encouraging. We hope that these events would set in motion a process that would lead the Iraqi people taking full control of their destiny."

Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself dropped hints of ambivalence. Recalling the "sufferings of the Iraqi people over the past decade, in particular following the imposition of sanctions, and under the present disturbed situation", he said "we sincerely hope that the elections are held in an environment of peace, with the full and genuine participation of all Iraqis... " and then added: "We will do all we can, as Iraq stabilises, to help with the return of normalcy and in the task of reconstruction... "

Indian policymakers should know better. Rather than be guided by defeatist ideas (for example, there is no alternative to tailing the U.S.), or by narrow considerations of commercial sub-contracts and oil deals in Iraq, they should take a level-headed and principled position demanding an end to the occupation, and creation of a multilateral authority under the United Nations which will oversee Iraq's transition to a fully sovereign democracy.

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