Wrong place at the wrong time

As the Iraqi elections come ever closer, the indications are that the level of participation will be very low. This, and the boycott of the process by large sectors of the Iraqi population, undermine the already dented credibility and legitimacy of this election. Statistics available show that even among Iraqis abroad the turnout will be low, and out of some two million people said eligible to vote only 130,000 have registered. If this is the case among those regarded as having escaped Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule and who live in safe and secure environments, then one may understand the reluctance of the deprived and vulnerable inside Iraq.

To start with, the vast majority of the Sunni population is refusing to take part in these elections. The major Sunni provinces–al-Anbar (Ramadi and Falluja), Mosul, Salah ul-Din (Tikrit and Sammara) and Dyala (Baquba)–have already made clear their unwillingness to participate, and the majority of the Sunni parties have pulled out of the race one by one. Some large and influential Shi’ite organizations, personalities and gatherings are also boycotting, including the Muqtada al-Sadr trend. Perhaps more damaging, even some Kurdish parties and political leaders have voiced their support for a postponement of the elections.

Of course, the above-mentioned groups, parties and sectors of the Iraqi population are not taking this attitude for the sake of foiling a democratic process they have been longing for. First, they say, the security situation in Iraq does not encourage or permit people to freely take part in the elections. Second, many feel they have been completely neglected and sidelined by the government and the occupying forces during election preparations, and were not consulted or approached by those who wrote and drafted the election law. The Iraqi High Commission for the Elections was established by the coalition administration and the Iraqi government without consultation with the different Iraqi political or judicial organizations.

Third, they say, there are areas such as Falluja and Samarra where it is impossible for elections to be held because of the destruction inflicted upon them by American (coalition forces) bombardment, while other areas are largely encircled by foreign forces making the free movement of both voters and candidates almost impossible. Fourth, with no neutral monitoring mechanism there is no guarantee the elections will be unbiased or honest. The United Nations has refused to send observers and no other credible body is offering to do so. Finally, free and credible elections cannot be carried out under the yoke of occupation.

In addition to that, the vast majority of Iraqis do not know who the candidates are. They know only the name of the leading figure in any list and perhaps one or two others. Most Iraqis have not voted before, and no education to this end has been forthcoming. The money spent on the elections went mainly to those favored by the US administration and smaller groups got almost nothing.

Thus, those who have called for a postponement were right. For the process to have any legitimacy a number of steps should be followed. To start with, the elections should be preceded by two reconciliation conferences–one in Baghdad and the other in a neighboring country–to bring people together with the government. The Iraqi High Commission for the Elections should be reorganized to include representatives of all the major Iraqi political trends. A new resolution should be issued by the UN Security Council to ensure monitoring of the elections. At the same time a clear and binding statement by the US government should also be issued stipulating a timetable for the withdrawal of US (coalition) forces from Iraq. The newly elected assembly should then be left free to accept or reject any law, and all the laws and regulations imposed or issued by the occupying forces should not be regarded as binding to any future government.

Needless to say, however, the US administration, the real power in Iraq, has shown no inclination to accept any of these suggestions. The US administration wants early elections because it wants to pull out and put an end to the daily attacks and killings of American soldiers.

Internally, meanwhile, those pressing to hold the elections now are almost certainly doing so because they feel this is a propitious time for them to gain power. They fail to realize that once doubts have shadowed any election, no matter what the results, the election will be seen as illegitimate. Indeed, Iraq itself provides a precedent. When the Iraqi Shi’ites were left out of power during the British occupation, the injustice haunted them for almost a century and framed their relations with those who cooperated with the British at the time. They are now committing the same mistake, and instead of listening and reaching out to the Sunni population, the major Shi’ite groups are insisting on regarding the election date as sacred. The only thing sacred is the right of all eligible citizens to participate in the vote.