The Iraqi Election

Stephen DeAngelis

February 3, 2009

Because my company, Enterra Solutions®, does a significant amount of business in Iraq, I am, of course, interested in any developments there. During the run-up to the elections held last Saturday, I wrote two posts [Iraqi Democracy and Voting in Iraq] about democracy in Iraq. In the first post, written in December, I talked about how a democratic and prosperous Iraq could provide an anchor for change throughout the Middle East. The second post, written last month, focused more specifically on internal tensions — particularly along the internal border between the Kurdish autonomous region and the rest of Iraq. Although all of the results are not in, things seem to have gone well during the elections. Iraqi citizens appear to be adapting to democracy [“Maliki Supporters Post Election Gains,” by Sudarsan Raghavan, Anthony Shadid and Ernesto Londoño, Washington Post, 3 February 2009].

“Iraq appears headed toward a reapportionment of power that favors the emergence of a strong central government, with supporters of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki showing strong returns in Saturday’s elections, according to early tallies seen by election and party officials.”

Despite America’s deep friendship with the Kurdistan Regional Government, its objective is to ensure that Iraq’s central government is a strong, democratically-elected, and fully functioning system. In that respect, the latest election results look promising.

“Preliminary results from provincial elections, the first national balloting in four years, are not expected for several days, but election and party officials across Iraq said that politicians allied with Maliki have posted large gains in the capital, Baghdad, and in southern Iraq, the country’s Shiite heartland. Such results would strengthen Maliki’s standing and that of his Dawa party ahead of parliamentary elections set for this year. Some Sunni Arabs also did well, including established politicians and newly empowered leaders of mainly tribal groups initially organized and funded by the United States to combat the Sunni insurgency. U.S. officials have wanted to see the emergence of a central government that would maintain Iraq’s integrity, but some of the Sunni leaders who appear to have gained power have created fiefdoms and resisted rule from Baghdad.”

As with any election held anywhere in the world, not everyone is pleased with the outcome. In Iraq, however, political tension can lead to conflict — an outcome no one desires.

“The results also appear poised to touch off new political battles. Tensions flared Monday in Anbar province, where Sunni tribal leaders threatened to take up arms, accusing religious Sunnis who run the provincial government of electoral fraud. Authorities swiftly imposed an overnight curfew in the province.”

Considering how unsettled things remain in Iraq, election results were about as good as could be expected. One message came through loud and clear from the electorate: they want security [“Disparate Iraqis Vote for Stability and Security,” by Sam Dagher and Steven Lee Myers,” New York Times, 2 February 2009]. I have always insisted that security and development must proceed together. Security, however, generally must provide some sort of foundation upon which development can build. Tired of conflict and fear, the citizens of Iraq are voting for security and prosperity.

“In two crucial but very different parts of Iraq — … in strategic Basra in the south and still violent Mosul in the north — people voted in provincial elections for similar aims: security and a centralized state strong enough to fend off those who seek to divide it.”

The voting reflected Arab “push back” to increasingly strong Kurdish efforts to expand their influence in northern Iraq. For more on that subject, read my post referenced above.

“In Mosul, the seat of Nineveh Province, the presumptive victory of Sunni Arab nationalists reflected a determination by majority Arabs to push back what they see as hostile encroachment by minority Kurds since the fall of Saddam Hussein. These Arab groups, disenfranchised from power, have embraced Mr. Maliki’s calls for a strong central state, which have put him on a collision course with Kurds. Many believe that empowering Arabs again in Mosul would also reduce much of the violence that remains, particularly because the winning Arab coalition, Al Hudba, is believed to be in communication with insurgents, mostly members of the former ruling Baath Party.”

So what do the election results really mean for Iraq and the Middle East? One of the first pundits to chip in was John Bolton, the conservative curmudgeon who helped form Bush’s foreign policy [“Iraq’s Victory, Iran’s Loss,” New York Times, 2 February 2009]. Bolton writes:

“Iraq’s peaceful elections and strong voter turnout last weekend were a major success for both that country and the United States — not that there was much celebration in American news coverage. The elections could also redefine Iran’s role in the region. Critics of the Iraq war claimed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 strengthened Iran’s position. Had we left Mr. Hussein in power, the theory goes, Iran would be less of a global threat. This argument is fundamentally wrong. …. Iraq’s provincial elections actually weaken Tehran’s hand. First, they were not entirely dominated by Shiite voters. After mostly boycotting the 2005 Iraq elections, Sunnis participated on Saturday in large numbers. Many of them seem to recognize that their abstention had been a mistake. If they follow through in the general elections that should be held later this year, the composition of Iraq’s Parliament will change substantially. Moreover, it’s unfair to assume that Tehran calls the shots among Iraqi Shiites. This gives too much credit to Iranian propaganda, and too little to the good sense of the Shiites themselves. Now they must decide whether taking orders from mullahs in Tehran is really more attractive than electing their own representatives in Baghdad. Despite these successful elections, the sectarian and communal violence will not necessarily end, and we may even see the ultimate fragmentation of Iraq. Nor will the elections put an end to Iran’s ambitions. Tehran appears to believe that its influence in the region is expanding, and that its neighbors and the United States have failed to respond effectively. This belief is unsurprising, given the Obama administration’s acquiescent attitude toward Tehran. Still, the elections could make a deep impression on the citizens of Iran and its vassal, Syria. Young, educated, sophisticated Iranians, dissatisfied with their country’s religious orthodoxy and economic failures since the 1979 revolution, will draw their own conclusions from Iraq’s peaceful democratic process.”

Bolton’s op-ed piece displays a bit of an “I told you so” attitude, but it also reflects what others have said (read the first post I reference above). The New York Times was interested in knowing what Iraqis thought about the elections and asked three Iraqi bloggers to offer their thoughts [“Iraq Voted. Did Democracy Win?” 2 February 2009]. The first blogger, Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blogger, wrote:

“Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, what happens thousands of miles in Washington has always had a direct effect on our lives in Iraq. So what was surprising about last Saturday is that it didn’t. In our council elections, the United States was far less relevant to Baghdadis than concerns about the state of services and the lack of rebuilding and jobs. Voters were more interested in the candidates’ stance on corruption in our government than their positions on American forces. Although you can still see the spark in the eyes of Iraqis as they dip their fingers in the indelible ink, there is an air of ‘been there, done that,’ indicating that the novelty of voting has disappeared. We understand the process — we’ve done it four times. Another remarkable change is how uneventful the day was. We woke fearing the worst, but it didn’t happen. An explosion here or there, but frankly, what day in Iraq passes without one? From where I live, it looks as if the Iraqi police and Army managed to keep it a relatively violence-free day. It was clearly far from perfect. In many places people were denied the right to vote when their names couldn’t be found in the registers. The huge number of candidates — nearly 15,000 for 440 seats on the councils of the 14 provinces holding elections — isn’t really a sign of political maturity, but rather shows a combination of greed and ignorance about the duties of council members. But, by Allah, we’re looking at our own politicians for answers instead of looking abroad. If we manage to repeat this success in the national elections at the end of this year, I think we can confidently say that we’ve got the hang of this democracy thing.”

I find that assessment much more meaningful that Bolton’s. The fact that local citizens are looking inward for answers instead of outward is a huge sea change in attitude. The second contributor, Dr. Mohammed, Last of Iraqis, wrote about an even more encouraging development — the rise of reason.

“I woke up with hope, hope for Iraq to be taken along the correct path by its sons. I woke to the noises voters were making in the street. As I dressed I was thinking about how different this election would be. Most of the people I know were not voting based on sects, but on sense. We are sick to death of corruption and sectarianism, and desperate for a change. Many people I spoke to had no faith in the credibility of the elections, thinking that the winners were already decided. But they wanted to do their part, hoping they might be wrong. Others voted to satisfy their consciences — especially after some religious leaders announced that it would be a sin not to participate. I opened the door and I felt a very soft breeze. The weather was great, neither hot nor cold, perfect for a walk in the car-free streets, a walk along the sacred road to democracy. Yet with every step my hopes were crushed by a sad reality: there were far fewer people heading to the polls than there had been in previous elections. Still, there were some scenes that filled my heart with joy: for example, an elderly woman, so stooped she could barely walk, pushing her husband to a polling station in his wheelchair. With the sparse crowds, I had only a short wait before the employee found my name in the list and gave me my voting paper. I took it to the booth and chose what I believed was best for Baghdad, then I painted my finger purple — it might look ugly, but I like it and I’m proud of it. At the same time, a child reached the table and insisted on painting his finger, too; everybody smiled because he was so happy about it. On my way home I developed an obsession of looking at the fingertips of every man and woman I passed. Too many had no ink. I hope the electoral committee does its part better than we did. I hope the election will not be fraudulent and the winners will not let us down. And I hope the people who didn’t vote this time will do so next time, and a real democracy will be achieved in the land where the first laws of the human race were set.”

The final contributor, Bookish, Mosul Is in Heart, comes from the province along the border of the Kurdish autonomous region.

“A few days before the elections, I asked my friends if they were going to vote, and whom they were going to choose. They had very different ideas, and I really could not make up my mind. I was even not sure whether I would go. But then my friend Mohammed said something that made up my mind: ‘It does not matter whom you are going to vote for, just make sure to vote and take part in the elections. It is our responsibility toward our city to choose good people or at least avoid the bad ones.’ Early Saturday morning, I got a bunch of text messages on my cellphone asking me to vote for Mohammed Shakir, the Iraqi Islamic Party’s candidate for governor of Nineveh Province. Not me: we gave the Islamic Party a chance in previous elections, but they disappointed. There was a surprisingly large number of people at the polling place, but everything was well organized. My father voted for candidates from Al Hadba, a Sunni Arab coalition that was expected to have a good day. My mother went for the Islamic Party. Talking to my friends afterward, I discovered that almost none of us had voted the same way. But we agreed that this election will be critical to our future. Mosul has been one of the most violent spots in Iraq, almost unbearable to live in. We have electricity for only two to four hours a day. The provincial council is responsible for public services and local security; it is now dominated by Kurds, even though Arabs are the vast majority in Mosul. The Kurds undoubtedly voted for their own candidates, while the Arab vote was most likely splintered. In the end, I guess, no one group will dominate; we must hope the new council will make a change for the better.”

Although Bookish’s comments reflect the fact that ethnic tensions are likely to continue between Arabs and Kurds, I found Bookish’s comments refreshingly hopeful because they reflect the fact that voters are using their heads as well as their hearts. I was particularly taken by the fact that Bookish’s parents voted differently. In a culture dominated by men, the fact that women feel empowered enough to vote differently than their husbands is an encouraging sign. The election was a good step forward for Iraq. It won’t solve all of Iraq’s problems or relieve all of its tensions, but settling differences through the ballot box rather than through the end of gun is a better way forward.