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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

IRAQ’S ONLY ELECTION
More Lipstick on the Pig?
James S. Henry

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On Sunday January 30, according to the official results finally  released on February 13, 8.46 million Iraqis, or 58 percent of Iraq’s 14.6 million registered voters, seized the opportunity to participate in a “free election” of sorts. They voted for candidates and parties that most of them had never heard of,  marked ballots that a majority of them could not read, walked for miles to secret polling booths under the watchful eyes of a foreign occupation army that had “collaterally” killed, injured or brutalized tens of thousands of their fellow citizens, and defied threats from thousands of other blood-thirsty, anti-democratic insurgents.

About 265,148 of those who voted were located outside the country -- just 13 percent of all the relatively affluent Iraqis who live abroad. Indeed, on Election Day, a large fraction of the Iraqi elite, and many officials in the interim government, were not to be found in the country -- like many members of the Iraqi elites, they had decamped for Jordan, Dubai, or London, anticipating that the insurgents would strike hard.

These non-resident voters did include some 56,568 Iraqis who voted from Iran, 15,062 who voted from Syria, and 11,409 who voted from the UAE -- places that are not otherwise known for holding free elections.  That might indeed be viewed as one small victory for "democracy" in the Middle East.

But most ordinary Iraqis had little choice but to stay in Iraq, and a majority of them braved all the difficulties -- including 260 attacks and more than 50 fatalities -- to vote.

_40578263_allawi_203apClearly the Iraqi people deserve much credit for this electoin-day bravery – especially those who tried to vote in more heavily Sunni Arab  districts where the insurgents have been most active.

Indeed, for once, this display of bravery was something about Iraq that most international leaders could agree on.

In President Bush’s words,The Iraqi people themselves made this election a resounding success.” The UN’s Kofi Annan described the Iraqi people as “courageous.” Britain’s Tony Blair reported that he was “humbled”  – no mean accomplishment in itself. Even Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, perhaps anticipating a Shiite victory, and hoping that this will accelerate a US withdrawal, pronounced the elections a "success" and a "sign of nobility of the Iraqi people.”

1_521938_1_34 It is clear as well that the long-suffering Iraqi people also deserve our respect  for simply having survived more than three decades of costly wars, occupations, international embargoes, and a brutal dictatorship – aided, armed, and abetted by several of the very same foreign powers that are now boasting so loudly about being the midwives of Iraq democracy.

1_523058_1_34Despite all the collateral damage, the security forces -- mainly unknown young Iraqi, American, and British soldiers -- who protected these voters also deserve credit.  Without this protection, even with all the Iraqi bravery, there would have been no election. These efforts go a long way toward repaying the moral debt that is owed to the Iraqi people   for the Great Powers’ decades of complicity with authoritarian regimes in Iraq, their failure to reckon with Saddam much earlier, and the fact that the Bush Administration and its friends have otherwise botched this latest intervention so thoroughly.

10_23_012905_iraq2Does anyone else deserve credit for this achievement? Precisely what has been accomplished,  at what cost? And when will the Coalition be able to withdraw its troops?  Our answers may surprise you.

ANY OTHER CREDITS FOR THIS MOVIE?

Bush_tieIn addition to the courageous Iraqi people and those who protected them, who else genuinely deserves praise for Sunday’s election?

As usual, success has generated paternity suits.

Chirac

According to France’s Jacque Chirac, who spearheaded opposition to the war at the UN and has been of little assistance since then, the election was somehow “a success for the international community.” Chirac did not explain how this was consistent with the fact that the US alone has so far provided more than 90% of the funding, non-Iraqi Coalition forces, and Coalition casualties.

We could have held better elections much earlier, with much less bloodshed.

On the other hand, if you listen to President Bush and his supporters,, as illustrated by the President's State of the Union speech, the election is nothing less than another “mission accomplished,” a complete vindication for the Administration’s entire Iraqi strategy.

There is also no shortage of hyperbole and self-congratulation from journalists and pundits, especially those who supported the invasion from the get-go – marching up one rationale and down another.

~ For example, The New York Times Magazine’s Michael Ignatieff declared that Sunday’s election in Iraq was “without precedent,” a bold experiment in democracy that everyone ought to “embrace.”

~ Similarly, The Guardian’s David Aaronovitch, another long-time supporter of the invasion, wrote that, however we may feel about how we arrived in Iraq and what it cost to get there, the only issue now is, “Are you for or against democracy?”Geraldo_rivera

~ FOX’s flak-jacketed Jerry Rivers (Geraldo Rivera), surrounded by four heavily-armed US Army riflemen, and this time apparently reporting from where he said he was without giving away any troop positions, called the Iraqi election “right up there with “1776 (sic), voting in Selma in 1960 or whatever (sic), and the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Indeed, this newfound enthusiasm for democracy on the American center-right is so thick that some observers have been reminded of The New York Times’ upbeat assessment of South Vietnam’s Presidential elections in September 1967. The headline read , US Encouraged by Vietnam vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror."

So we are all Wilsonian democrats now – except perhaps when elections produce outcomes that we don’t like.

In the local elections in the West Bank and Gaza in December 2004, for example, an unprecedented 81 percent of registered Palestinians voted, and more than a third of them voted for Hamas.

Was this comparatively free election, held under Israeli guns in the occupied territories, not a “resounding success?” Were the Palestinians who braved rival factions and the Israeli Army and came out to vote not “courageous?” Are we really, after all, “for or against democracy?” 

THE HIGH COST OF MIDDLE EAST DEMOCRACY

It is not surprising that so many have stepped forward to take credit for the courage demonstrated this weekend by ordinary voters, soldiers, and police in Iraq. After two years of terrorist dentistry, we were starved for good news from Iraq.

Expectations have been incredibly low. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark about the singing dog, we were not surprised that the Iraqi election had imperfections; we were surprised there was any election at all.

The war’s supporters are also down to their very last official justification for preemptively invading a country that never attacked us. Having given up on justifying preemption by finding WMDs, and having made Iraq more of a terrorist base camp than it ever was before, those who “embraced” the original invasion are leaping at the opportunity to say – hey, look, maybe there will be at least some return on this incredibly costly experiment. Maybe the West really can plant democratic seeds in Middle Eastern deserts!

26pix020The investment certainly has been huge. It includes more than 1,606 Multilateral Force fatalities, 10,371 US wounded, 1,200 other MLF forces wounded, at least 1,362 fatalities among pro-Coalition Iraqi security forces, and anywhere from 15,563 to 100,000 or more Iraqi civilian and insurgent fatalities, depending on who is counting.

The direct dollar cost of the war and its aftermath is fast approaching $220 billion for the US alone, plus whatever costs the other Coalition members  and the Iraqi interim government have paid out of their own pockets – and another $9 billion of Iraqi money that apparently simply vanished under Paul Bremer's administration.

All told, this amounts to nearly$30,000 per Iraqi voter, 15 times the country’s per capita income.

Nor was all this spending only a financial cost, because there were opportunity costs – a fancy way of saying that the money could have been spent elsewhere and saved thousands of lives. After all, it amounts to eight times the annual level of all foreign aid provided by all First World countries,and100 times the amountrequested this year by the World Health Organization to fight the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In practice, of course, if President Bush had not been able to launch his pet project in Iraq, he might well have just pursued another tax cut.

But for that much money, maybe we could at least have persuaded Saddam and his loyalists to leave the country and set up shop in Panama or Cuernavaca, following in the Shah’s footsteps. Like the Shah, Saddam has now contracted cancer, and may just have a couple years to live.If only we had waited…..?


EMBRACING REALITY

Under a microscope, most of the ex-post back-patting turns out to be simplistic, self-serving nonsense. Before we take off the flak jackets and break out the champagne, let's recall some sobering realities:

1. Most Iraqis Want Us Gone

Whether or not most First Worlders and the Bush Administration “embrace” Iraqi democracy,most Iraqis have clearly not “embraced” occupation.

Recent opinion polls show that the vast majority – not only the insurgents, but also those who voted in this election – would like nothing more than for the foreign occupation to end.

Indeed, if they had had the chance to vote directly on this subject, one suspects that Sunday's turnout would have increased to 90 percent, and that more than 80 percent would have voted to send all US and British troops packing, to replace them with a few thousand peacekeepers from neutral countries, and to immediately cease construction of the Pentagon's 14 permanent military bases in Iraq.

2. We Could Have Held Better Elections, Much Earlier

In recent months, as the insurgency gathered steam, some observers began to suggest that it should be postponed. But Sunday’s election came nearly two years after the US-led invasion. The real issue is, what did we really gain from waiting so long?

In fact, largely because of the deteriorating security situation, this election was almost certainly much less effective, efficient, and democratic than the election that we could have held within a few months of the invasion – using the same simple ration card- and finger-printing based system for voter registration that we ended up using anyway.

PaulbremerWay back then, we probably could have achieved even higher turnout at much lower cost, with a much weaker insurgency -- as the Ayatollah Al-Sistani, Iraq’s chief Shiite cleric, advised Paul Bremer some 20 months ago.

Indeed, in other transitional situations, like South Africa’s transition from apartheid in 1994 and East Timor’s election in 2001, snap elections were held with only a few months of preparation, with great success – more than 90 percent turnout in both cases.

Instead, the Bush Administration decided to postpone the election for almost two years, in a failed effort to manage Iraqi’s political destiny, assert control over Iraq’s domestic policies, head off Shiite and Kurdish regionalism, and install a government that would be more sympathetic to US "neocon" ambitions.

As a result, the Bush team really deserves responsibility for stoking an insurgency -- now estimated by some observers at having at least 10,000 to 20,000 fighters. This armed resistance, in which foreign fighters actually play only a minor supporting role,  has derived much of its fire from the continued occupation and the perpetuation of the unelected “interim” government.

This insurgency, in turn, came very close this month to squelching this election entirely -- to the point where Prime Minister reportedly called President Bush in mid-January to propose delaying it again.

In the end, only an all-out mobilization of Coalition forces, including shipping another 12,000 US troops to Iraq on top of the 140,000 already there, prevented a disaster.

While this transition was never going to be easy, the US control-oriented strategy also antagonized many other Iraqis, making it harder to work with local allies and train Iraqi forces. It exacerbated  divisions within Iraqi society, as groups like the Kurds grew more and more independent, radical Shiites took up arms, and more and more Sunni Arab areas became no-go war zones.

Far from serving democracy’s cause, therefore, the Bush Administration’s high-risk strategy actually amounted to a dangerous game of “chicken.” After two years of this, we arrived at a situation where people were amazed that the election could even take place. It is bizarre for us to celebrate this close escape as a triumph for the President  -- we really have only the Iraqi people and our troops on the ground to thank for narrowly avoiding disaster.  As usual, the fortuitous G. W. has just skated by. 

3. The Real Meaning of “High” Turnout

“Higher than expected” turnout in this election has been the main cause for celebration so far. But in fact many other developing countries have also held first-time elections and achieved even higher turnouts, even under occupation.

We already mentioned the case of Palestine’s recent elections. UN-supervised elections in Indonesian-occupied East Timor in August 2001 saw a 93 percent turnout. Kosovo’s 2001 legislative election, also supervised by UN peacekeepers, recorded a 65 percent turnout. In Afghanistan’s October 2004 Presidential election, the turnout was 70 percent.

Of course in non-occupied developing democracies like South Africa, Indonesia the Philippines, India, and Brazil, 80-85 percent or higher turnouts are the order of the day.

Only in the US, where voter turnout struggles to exceed fifty percent, does he Iraqi turnout look like a big number. 

The overall turnout also masks some important potential problems in Iraq, because turnout rates varied sharply along religious, ethnic, and regional lines. 

For example, among the Shiites, who constitute 60 percent of Iraq’s population and live mainly in better-defended parts of Baghdad and the south, turnout reportedly averaged more than 80 percent. Among the 15 percent of the population that lives in Iraq’s three Sunni/Kurdish provinces in the better-defended north, turnout was even higher.

Iraq’s population statistics are subject to huge uncertainties – there has been no census since 1997, and in the case of the Kurdish areas, since 1987. But if we assume that these conventional population share estimates are roughly right, they already add up to more than 8 million votes in Sunday’s election -- even if turnout in Iraqi’s Sunni Arab-dominated provinces was zero.

In other words, the final voter turnout would have to have been substantially greater than 8 million for there to be any room left over for Sunni Arab participation. This is consistent with many reports that this participation was very low.

 

4. Signs of Disunity?

Since the overall turnout rate was partly a product of these growing divisions, it may not be a sign of health. 

Sunday’s election employed a nation-wide list proportional representation system to select the 275-member National Assembly that will choose interim leaders and draft a new Iraqi constitution.

In other contexts, such a voting system is arguably much more democractic than many others. For example, if it had been employed to elect representatives to the US Congress, rather the current "single member district/first one past the post" system, the Democratic Party would control both the House and the Senate.

However, in Iraq's case, this system asked a great deal of many people who had never before voted, did not know the candidates, and, indeed, often could not even read.  Almost half of them are under the age of 18; the median age of voters is under 25. Adult literacy is just 39 percent. These voters were expected to choose among more than 111 different national parties and 200 separate candidate lists, which, in turn, contained 7,000 candidates for the Assembly and 12,000 for regional offices.

Most of these parties and candidates were virtually unknown. The ballots were so complex that even the Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, needed special instructions on how to fill them out. Because of the security situation, there were severe constraints on how much campaigning could be done beforehand by all but the best-funded parties – for example, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi List party, which was somehow rich enough to afford massive TV advertising and $100 bills for embedded journalists. Most individual candidates chose not to be publicly identified – the leading United Iraqi Alliance party only identified 37 of its 225 candidates, “to keep them alive.”

This peek-a-boo national list system may have been the only one that was feasible, given the late date of the election and the precarious security situation. But as we have just argued, that was not inevitable. It almost certainly increased the leverage of a handful of political gatekeepers like Allawi. It also reinforced the incentives for block voting, and the potential for regionalism and fratricide. 

5. Another “Mission Accomplished?"

While Sunday’s election was an essential battle for democracy to win, it is premature to declare victory. Even apart from the insurgency, which is likely to continue as long as there are any US or UK troops in the country, Iraq remains a semi-artificial colonial construction that is subject to strong centrifugal forces. This election may have only succeeded in increasing these forces, by reinforcing group and regional polarities.

For example, to maximize their influence on the constitutional debate, and press their not-so-secret ambition to have an independent Kurdish state, the two leading Kurdish political parties established a united front, the Kurdish Alliance List, for Sunday’s election. They also sponsored a referendum on "Kurdistan’s" independence, side-by-side with the election.

One country’s liberation is another’s nightmare. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan recently expressed grave concern over the Kurds’ designs on oil-rich Kirkuk, their continued interest in an independent state, and the refuge they have provided to some 5000 fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters – “terrorists” in some vernaculars -- in northern Iraq. Two pro-PKK parties also participated in the Iraqi elections, despite Turkey’s denunciation of them as “terrorists.” There were also complaints from Kirkuk’s Turkomen community that 72,000 Iraqi Kurds had migrated there and registered to vote, to shift the balance of power.

SisMeanwhile, Iraq’s Shiites are also struggling to organize their political power. One reason why Shiite turnout was so high is that 75-year old Iran-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, issued an edict declaring it a religious duty for them to vote, and also permitted women to vote. Al-Sistani could not vote in the elections himself because he is not  even an Iraqi citizen. But together with fellow cleric Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, and accused Iran spy/ bank fraudster Ahmad Chalabi, al-Sistani helped to organize the United Iraqi Alliance, which has reportedly captured at least 45 percent of the vote.

_40758367_hakim_203apThe UIA is a diverse lot, and it is by no means clear who will lead it or what policies it will support. But what is clear is that some of its leaders would make very strange bedfellows for the United States of America, and that perhaps, at a minimum, we should not count on them to serve as the vanguard of our efforts to export democracy to the Middle East.

For example, Al-Hakim is the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of two leading Shiite parties in Iraq, has been openly opposed the “US occupation.” The second element of the Alliance’s program demands: “…A timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.”

In May 2003, two months after the US invasion, Al-Hakim returned from exile in Iran and set up shop in Najaf. SCIRI, which has been called the “Hezbollah of Iraq,” also maintains the Badr Corps, an Iranian-trained militia that Al-Hakim helped to found in the early 1980s, is based in Teheran, and numbers anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000.

_40553465_chalabiThere is more. In the run-up to the war, SCIRI was one of six Iraqi exile organizations that shared at least $92 million in US military aid. (Another was Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.)

However, in April 2003 it earned Donald Rumsfeld’s wrath. He sternly warned Iran about using Badr Corp, which had also developed strong relations with the Kurd’s military wing, to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. The SCIRI is also staunchly opposed to the recognition of Israel until the “occupation of Palestine” has ended.

In October 2004, Iraq’s national intelligence chief Mohammed al-Shahwan accused the Badr militia of assassinating 10 of his agents, and accused Chalabi, Al-Hakim’s ally, of being a spy for Iran. Indeed, according to the US 9/11 Commission, SCIRI, Hezbollah, and Hamas are all basically sister organizations that are heavily supported by Iran.

Of course this is the Middle East, so one has to take all such scuttlebutt with a grain of saffron. Maybe just the experience of participating in elections will cause religious radicals to become moderates! True,  that hasn't exactly happened yet on the US religious right, much less among Iranian, Arab, or Israeli true believers. But hope springs eternal -- after all, US foreign policy is a faith-based initiative!   

So perhaps now we understand another reason why Iran’s Foreign Minister was just as enthusiastic about the elections in Iraq as President Bush. Hamas’ recent victory in Palestine may not have been his only cause for celebration. Or perhaps everyone is reading Woodrow Wilson these days!

But you ‘re still either for democracy or against it, right? 

6. Seedbed for Democracy?

Whatever the longer-term consequences of this election for Iraq, can we at least be assured that it has had a salutary effect on the rest of the Middle East? Here again the waters are murky.

689c0fe9738901Not surprisingly, Hamid Kharzai, “the mayor of Kabul,” was enthusiastic about the election. Jordan's King Abdullah, a dapper, English-speaking Arab Sunni monarch and a leading US aid recipient whose own country doesn’t quite yet hold Iraq-style elections for some reason, worried that the Sunni Arab turnout was "a lot lower than any of us hoped.” But he also added that "This is a thing that will set a good tone for the Middle East, and I am optimistic."

Other US allies in the Muslim world have found Iraq’s example much less contagious.

MusharrafPakistan’s President Musharraf has made no public comment on the elections. But in December 2004 he called the Iraq War a “mistake” that “made the world a more dangerous place.” That same month he also broke his solemn promise to give up absolute power, extending his term as Army Chief and President several more years. The US currently gives Musharraf's nuclear-armed military dictatorship more than $300 million a year in military aid and $306 million in economic aid, and has also recently helped it reschedule billions of foreign debt.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak ventured the hope that the Iraqi election “would open the way for the restoration of calm and stability.” But just last week, Mubarak, who gets $2 billion a year of US economic and military aid, said he may run for a fifth 6-year term – unless his son runs. Just this weekend, as Iraq starting to hold elections, his government detained Egypt’s main opposition leader.

Mubarak_1You are either for democracy or you are against it, right?

SUMMARY

So now that we’re here, where are we? How do we make sense of this bizarre, contradictory outcome, where the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want us to leave their country forthwith, but could not retain their electoral freedoms for one New York minute without us?

Was trying to force-feed democracy-to-go in this complex environment really ever a good idea? Once there, couldn't we have done a vastly better job of it than we have?  Will the astronomical price that we and the Iraqi people have paid, in terms of blood, distraction, international law, and treasure, ever be worth it? How long will it be until we will know for sure?

But history is not made by critics, historians, and other second-guessers. For better or worse, it is often made by simplistic, decisive little men (and women) who are able, one way or another, to grab hold of the reigns of power and say -- "Follow me - I'm sure the trail is this way." Our continuing propensity to respond to such appeals, in the face of mounds of evidence about the likely results, is astounding and disturbing.

In any case, whatever else the Iraqi experiment has accomplished, at least the Iraqi people have now held their first election since…..Well, come to think of it, up to now, there never has been a truly free election in “Iraq,” the pseudo-nation that Britain and the World War I Allies cobbled together out of three Ottoman Empire administrative eyalets (provinces), Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul in 1921, and deemed “independent” in 1932.

For that matter, the Great Powers of that day probably could have mandated an election way back then that was no less free, secure, or fair than  last Sunday’s and avoided the whole bloody sequel.

***

(Note to readers: SubmergingMarkets™ enjoys the dubious satisfaction of having been roughly right about developments in Iraq for the past year and a half. For example, see Reference 1 and Reference 2.) 

© James S. Henry, Submerging Markets™, February 05

February 1, 2005 at 08:20 PM | Permalink

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IRAQ’S ONLY ELECTION
More Lipstick on the Pig?
James S. Henry
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Comments

I believe your report on the Iraqi elections is one of the most insightful that is availbale. I also like very much your very broad coverage of issues.

Keep up the good work.

Salim.

Posted by: Salim Amir at Feb 8, 2005 3:24:47 AM

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