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A flawed election process

Print edition : Jan 28, 2005 T+T-
Putting up an election poster in Baghdad.-HADI MIZBAN/AP

Putting up an election poster in Baghdad.-HADI MIZBAN/AP

The January 30 elections in Iraq to form a transition government and elect representatives who would draft the country's new Constitution are threatened by a possible Sunni boycott and the perception that they are meant to legitimise the U.S. occupation of the country.

DISREGARDING calls for a postponement, Iraq's American occupiers are set to hold elections in the country on January 30. The stated purpose of the polls is to elect individuals who would draft Iraq's new Constitution. While the balloting for the 275-member Transitional National Assembly also envisages the formation of a new government, the tenure of the assembly would be limited. Fresh elections to install another government, based on the new Constitution, are slated for December.

The elections this month are likely to elevate the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a Shia-dominated combine steered by Iraq's top Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to the position of leadership. But the polls, which have become the focus of world attention, are flawed on several counts.

First, the elections are being conducted by a pliant government that is dependent on an occupying army. With no de facto independence, it inherently lacks the moral authority to conduct free and fair elections.

These polls are also different from elections held in other parts of the world under occupation. Writing in the Monthly Review, Phyllis Bennis, the independent American journalist, points out that the United Nations has claimed that the 1999 elections in East Timor have set the precedent of a "legitimate" election held under occupation, but the polls in East Timor, and the framework under which they were conducted, were markedly different from the elections that have been planned in Iraq. U.N. resolutions, since 1996, had designated Indonesia's occupation of East Timor illegal and had called for Jakarta's withdrawal. So when elections were held in 1999, their purpose was not to install a new government that would govern East Timor under Indonesian occupation; the vote was a direct referendum on whether the Indonesian occupation should end. Unlike the people of East Timor, Iraqis are not being given a chance to air their views on the occupation.

During the phase of the referendum, intense pressure was brought on the Indonesian military, which discouraged it to intervene and manipulate elections. No such deterrent is in place in the case of Iraq. Besides, in East Timor, the U.N., backed by an army of its own workers, along with international monitors directly conducted the polls. In Iraq, balloting would be overseen by an election commission that derives its authority from a puppet government. The presence of U.N. workers on the ground is also negligible. Not surprisingly, many Iraqis see the upcoming elections as an attempt by the U.S. to legitimise its illegal occupation under the cover of "democratisation", which it seeks to promote in the Arab world. The elections are also seen as a test, which, if found successful, could be carried out under similar circumstances in other parts of the globe as part of a larger American imperial project the Bush administration has undertaken.

Lack of participation by large sections of Iraqi population has also called into question the legitimacy of the upcoming poll. Most of the Sunni groups that matter have declared that they will keep away from the elections. The highly influential Association of Muslim Scholars, a mainly Sunni organisation, has more than once declared that it does not support the elections, as they are being held under American occupation. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni political party, which once showed an inclination to contest, has also finally withdrawn. As a result, the majority of Sunnis, who comprise nearly 25 per cent of Iraq's population, are likely to keep out of the electoral process.

Violence, which is raging in large parts of Iraq, is also expected to discourage voters from casting their ballots. This could result in a poor turnout, and, consequently, an inadequately represented assembly. Contrary to the impression conveyed by the mainstream media that the Iraqi resistance is confined to the "Sunni triangle" - a relatively small area that exists in and around Baghdad - the footprints of the guerillas are spread over a much larger area. Car bombings, grenade and mortar attacks and ambushes have taken place all over the country, including far-flung areas such as Tal Afar near the Syrian border, Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, and Hilla and Al Amarah towards the south, apart from Falluja, Ramadi, Baghdad and Sadr City.

Associated Press writer Denis D. Gray, in one of his earlier dispatches, before the situation on the ground arguably worsened, noted: "At least six provinces - Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Nineveh - have been the scene of significant attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi authorities. The only areas not plagued by bloodshed are the three northern provinces controlled by Kurds. The situation in many areas, however, is unknown since journalists' travel is restricted by security fears."

The decision of the key Sunni groups to stay away from the polls is likely to have serious long-term implications, especially when the assembly starts drafting a new Constitution, which is its core task. Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq, who teaches at the University of Michigan, points out that Sunni Arabs have a big stake in the permanent Constitution, which will take decisions that will have a major impact on their lives in the future. For instance, former President Saddam Hussein settled Sunni Arabs in large numbers in an around Kirkuk - an oil city which has a predominantly Kurdish population. Kurds have deeply resented the presence of Arab settlers in their midst. But as Iraq's basic law gets drafted, will the new Constitution give Kirkuk and its oil, the mainstay of the Iraqi economy, to the Kurds, thereby depriving Arabs of any share in those revenues? Will an assembly dominated by Shias make Shia law the law of the land? Will Iraq have a unicameral Parliament, which Shias will dominate, or will there be room for the emergence of an upper chamber where the Sunnis would be better represented? Professor Cole argues: "If all those issues go against the Sunnis because they aren't there to argue their positions, it would set Iraq up for guerilla war into the foreseeable future."

While Ayatollah Sistani's UIA, which has a large following, is enthusiastic about participation, new fault lines have, nevertheless, emerged within the Shia ranks. Moqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric whose militia has twice revolted against the American occupation, has declared that he will not participate in the elections "even if they were to lead to the withdrawal of the occupiers".

Shaikh Abdul Zahrah al-Suway'di, the Friday prayers leader at the Al-Muhsin mosque in Sadr City, read out on December 31 a statement from Moqtada al-Sadr, which said: "I, as an Iraqi, will not participate in the elections, and will not enter into this political game at all. Refusing to participate in the elections gets you branded as an enemy of democracy, but if you participate in them you find that you have been caught in their game in such a way that you cannot escape."

Nevertheless, the UIA is likely to emerge as a dominant force in Iraqi politics after the elections are over. The anticipated emergence of a regime dominated by Shias, who have never exercised leadership in Iraq despite their majority status, is leading to two major consequences.

Internally, the decision by the majority of Shias to participate in the polls, irrespective of the U.S. occupation and resistance led by the Sunnis against foreign rule, is fraying Shia-Sunni relations. Consequently, the social contract, cemented by a sense of Iraqi nationalism and tribal inter-relationships, which has governed ties between Sunnis and Shias, has come under considerable strain. Exhortations to hold elections by Shia-governed Iran have added to the emerging dissonance in the Sunni-Shia relationship. Large sections of Sunnis have begun to perceive that Shias backed by vested interests abroad are working to undermine their position inside Iraq.

Besides, the rise of Shia power in Iraq has begun to sour relations among some of the countries in the region. Accusing Iran of interfering in the run-up to the elections, Jordan, a close ally of the U.S., has accused it of steering the formation of a "Shia crescent" in the heart of West Asia. Iran has retaliated by downgrading its presence at a regional conference on Iraq in Amman on January 6. The English daily Tehran Times, known to be close to a section of the Iranian establishment, accused Jordan, in a front-paged commentary, of interfering in Iraqi affairs "in a way far exceeding its geopolitical status".