Beware the euphoria about Iraq's election
History has a sober lesson for those intoxicated by the poll
By Scott Burchill.
Age" -- The fact that elections actually took place in Iraq was a very good thing.
Contrary to media reporting, particularly in outlets that led the cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the United States and Britain were strongly opposed to elections and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept a ballot.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported on January 20:
"When US administrator Paul Bremer was pushing for an Iraqi constitution written by US appointees in the summer of 2003, (Grand Ayatollah) Sistani issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, saying that only an elected body could write the constitution. The US backed down. In November 2003, when Mr Bremer was seeking to choose an interim government through appointments and indirect voting, Sistani ruled that only direct elections would do.
"The US said Iraq was too turbulent for full elections and that a vote couldn't be held until a complete national census was held. Sistani's aides countered that food-ration cards issued to every Iraqi family could be used as registration documents for the elections. And that's what's happening now. When Bremer went to the US and cobbled together the current transitional process, most observers say it was largely with appeasing Sistani in mind."
That a humiliating backdown is now portrayed as a shining example of President Bush's messianic vision of a democratic Middle East - and for some, a retrospective justification for the invasion and occupation of the country - is a grotesque example of "the ends justify the means" morality.
It's also a stunning case of wilful amnesia.
First and foremost, the election should be seen as a triumph of non-violent resistance for which the senior Shiite cleric is a powerful symbol.
The fact that millions had to risk their lives in order to vote is, however, the responsibility of occupying armies that have conspicuously failed to provide Iraqi citizens with peace or security. In attacking a secular state, the US-led coalition has not only seriously exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions that scarcely existed before - it also provided conditions in which terrorism has thrived.
Measuring the "success" of the election is therefore inseparable from the human cost that preceded it and which promises to rise. How many innocent civilians lost their lives in the 21 months before last Sunday's ballot? We don't know because the occupying armies refuse to keep count.
The key question now is whether a government that is seen as legitimate by all sectors of Iraqi society will emerge, and if its likely call for the withdrawal of occupying armies will be respected by Washington and London. It's at that point we will know if Iraq is again independent and sovereign.
Election euphoria among conservative pundits such as Gerard Henderson (on this page last Tuesday) has taken odd, if predictable form - attacks on those who questioned the wisdom of holding elections while the country was a war zone and under foreign military occupation. Point scoring in some perceived culture war against "the left", instead of serious analysis, has also become the house style for editorials and opinion articles in the Murdoch press on the subject of Iraq.
Before Bush's supporters become too intoxicated by the historical significance of the January 30 ballot in Iraq, and assume that legitimacy has been conferred upon a new Iraqi polity, they might reflect on the following New York Times report from September 4, 1967, which appeared under the heading, "US Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror":
"United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.
"According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.
"The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the national election based on the incomplete returns reaching here."
Sound familiar? Not all "democratic" elections leave a triumphant legacy. And sometimes, history has a habit of repeating itself. We should all hope that for the people of Iraq, in this case it doesn't.
Dr Scott Burchill is senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University. firstname.lastname@example.org
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