Iraq's election results will confirm, but not bestow power

Polls have closed in Iraq as I start to write this column early Sunday morning, Pacific Time in the US. As many as 10 million Iraqis are estimated to have cast their vote, showing their indomitable character – threats and all, adding to the vote of yet another 600,000 expatriates and refugees abroad, as well as the nation’s military, which had already done so this past week amid turmoil orchestrated by Iraq’s branch of Al Qaeda.

As usual, we in the West have assigned the cheap adjective “crucial” to this election – as we have done with so many other elections in the past two decades, trying to define democracy in an electoral fashion that may not identify the realities of other cultures, or of very different situations. It seems that every election has been crucial to America, always in the name of democracy, so why should this one in Iraq be different this time?

All too often, the West (US and the European Union as principal proponents), with at least the tacit support of the United Nations, has taken the approach that elections are the true primordial soup of democracy, to be held at the earliest possible date no matter how fair or adequate in their makeup. It happened soon after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia during the 1990’s, in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. And it followed in South Africa, and other fronts where America had its economic or political hands in the dough, whether in the Caucasus-Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005); or were part of the military war-games: Iraq and Afghanistan (2004-5).

And just as often, many of the characters involved in those elections turned out to be the same old autocratic rulers now dressed in democratic vestments, their faces painted as if white mimes. The same old cast of characters… good old commissars, tribal leaders, and other power-laden chieftains, their names appearing in the ballot box after a democratic whitewashing of sorts had been done to accommodate the apostles of the new political religion… said to be democracy; which presumably stands for government of the people, or at least it does in its literal translation from its Greek roots.

Only in a clear-cut case where power critically and indisputably can change hands, do elections indeed bestow legitimate power. But the only case we can think as applicable comes in the 1994 elections in South Africa after universal suffrage was finally imposed. A non-white population exceeded the white population by a multiple of 7 to 1! That allowed the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader, Nelson Mandela, to take over every facet of government with an actual 62.5% of the total vote. However, it must be pointed out that the election was a formality sealing an accord that had been for a decade in the making… after several prior decades of unrest and war.

Any comparison of Iraq’s sectarianism (Shia, Sunni and Kurds) to the racial divide in South Africa would be totally foolish, even if the Shia is the population-dominant group. A religious majority in this case is somewhat softened by the fact that secularization had already made great inroads under Saddam Hussein, and now appears to be given the blessing of many prominent Shiite leaders, such as the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Marjaiya. Not that al-Sistani favors secularization, but rather that he prefers not to have religion involved in the political process. And that augurs well for sane coalition-making where more Sunnis get involved… and the post-Saddam Hussein period of vengeance by the Shia is declared once and for all ended, done-with, over. That would leave Iraq with only one major barrier for the final nation-building stage: a fair accommodation with the Kurds, and their aspirations for complete independence.

To our electoral democratic simplicity – a two-party system fueled by the very same corporate interests – 6,200 candidates from 86 political groups vying for just 325 parliamentary seats seems rather overwhelming, but given what Iraqis have endured, and continue enduring, they may be able to pull this one out successfully. It may take a while before coalitions and middle-eastern political barter bring us solid reasons to hope for a model Iraq that will yield both economic and socio-political power in the region. To me, nonetheless, the probability for success has tripled since the elections in 2005.

It’s beginning to look as if Obama can keep his promise to bring home (… and not just redeploy them to Afghanistan) half of the troops remaining in Iraq – about 45,000 – by August this year, with the other half scheduled to depart that country by the end of 2011. Of course, this plan is contingent on a continuing secure environment for the multinational firms which have successfully bid for Iraq’s oil, plus other firms that might contemplate establishing business operations in that nation. So far so good!

For Iraq’s average citizen, however, his is not a political dream but one involving a down to earth hope that turns to reality: the return to those pre-invasion days when you could depend on having an adequate amount of electricity and water as you lived through the day… even if such simple commodities came under the auspices of a dictator.