Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Election Results In Iraq (Normblog)

Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog)
February 13, 2005

The election results in Iraq
(by Jeff Weintraub)

On first impression, the latest news about the Iraqi election returns has confirmed my most optimistic hopes. Granted, my expectations weren't very high, but things could have turned out a lot worse.

The so-called Sistani list, including the main Shia religious parties, came in first, as expected. But not only did they fail to get the two-thirds majority they would have needed to form a government entirely by themselves, but it appears that they just missed getting a simple majority. Furthermore, the strategy of the two main Kurdish parties (KDP and PUK), and the popular support they were able to mobilize (not just in Kurdistan, but among Kurds elsewhere in Iraq), may turn out to be quite important in shaping the overall results of the election - which would definitely be a good thing.

It seems that the Allawi list didn't get enough votes to come out ahead (which would have been unfortunate, in my opinion) but did get enough votes to prevent a total landslide for the Sistani list. So the latter will have to put together a coalition in order to form a transitional government (which, according to the rules, requires more than a simple majority). And for various reasons, including the prominent role of Chalabi - coalition-builder extraordinaire - in the Sistani list, there are good prospects that they could form a coalition with the Kurdish parties (a strategy urged, convincingly in my view, by Kurdophile analysts of Iraqi politics like Brendan O'Leary). If so, this would be a Very Good Thing, since the Kurdish parties happen to be the most pro-democratic, anti-theocratic, pro-feminist, experienced, responsible, (relatively) clean, and politically skilled of all the major forces on the Iraqi political scene.

All this is still hypothetical, of course. Actually, what happens next will depend to a great extent on two factors that remain uncertain: (1) The political skill, effectiveness, and moderation of the Iraqi Shiite leadership, political and religious. And (2) whether or not, and to what extent, the central axis of Iraqi politics now comes to be shaped by an effective coalition between Shiite Arabs and Kurds (which, among other things, would also strengthen those tendencies in Iraqi Shiite politics that are least theocratic and least tied to Iran). It may be that both of these factors will turn out badly, but at the moment it doesn't appear to be inevitable.

And if the self-marginalization of the Sunni Arabs helps lead to a durable Shiite-Kurd coalition, then that opens up some hopeful possibilities with regard to the Sunni Arab minority as well, which might partly counterbalance the many mistakes of the US occupation so far. Several recent analyses of the so-called Iraqi 'insurgency' (including those by anti-war people like Seymour Hersh, as well as informed and ambivalent analysts like Juan Cole) suggest that these 'insurgents' resemble the ultra-right diehards of the Secret Army Organization in French Algeria a lot more than the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. They can cause a lot of trouble, but their potential mass base is inherently limited to 15-20% of the population, and their 'programme' is not only rejected but feared and hated by over 80% of the population. Furthermore (as in the case of the SAO), their tactics only increase the extent to which the vast majority of the country turns against them. For example, in April 2004 a lot of non-Sunni Iraqi Arabs were upset by the US assault on Fallujah, which helped provoke the disastrous decision to end it half-way; it was probably a mistake to launch the assault, but once they started it, they should have finished it. In November 2004, the vast majority of non-Sunni Arabs either applauded the new US assault or just kept quiet. As Juan Cole pointed out at the time, 'the silence of the Shiites was thunderous'. So if the 'insurgents' can't panic the US into simply pulling out, and if any half-way effective government representing the other 80-85% of the population manages to emerge, they can ultimately be isolated and crushed. Meanwhile, all the major Kurdish and Shia political tendencies seem committed, at least to some degree, to reaching out to non-fascist elements in the Sunni Arab political leadership and elites (if only because they recognize what eastern Europeans used to call, euphemistically, 'geopolitical realities').

These are all big ifs, of course. Instead, it is conceivable that everything could go wrong and we could see the emergence of some sort of mega-Lebanon (with the Sunni Arabs and the 'insurgents', as Juan Cole points out, playing the role of the Maronites and the Phalangists).

But, overall, the results and implications of the elections continue to look promising - in the circumstances, which are pretty unpromising. Successfully holding the election was itself a remarkable triumph (under the circumstances); and the results give the Iraqis just about the best possible chance they could have gotten to put together a decently acceptable political future for the country - if they don't blow it, of course.

(Jeff Weintraub)

Posted by Norm at 08:18 PM | Permalink

P.S. A follow-up on Dan Drezner's blog (2/14/2005):

Jeff Weintraub, analyzing the results, suggests that "On first impression, the latest news about the Iraqi election returns has confirmed my most optimistic hopes." Juan Cole, looking at the same numbers, concludes, "[current Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi's defeat... is a huge defeat for the Bush administration, though it will not be reported that way in the corporate media."

UPDATE: Robin Wright has an odd news analysis piece in the Washington Post today. It's odd becuse the headline reads, "Iraq Winners Allied With Iran Are the Opposite of U.S. Vision" -- and the piece consists of expert quotes (including Cole) making this point. However, in the 16th paragraph there's this casual admission that, "U.S. and regional analysts agree that Iraq is not likely to become an Iranian surrogate." I'll have more to say about the question of Iran's influence in Iraq sometime this week.

Meanwhile, Weintraub e-mails the following:
[W]hat [Cole] says in this particular quotation is not incompatible with what I said. Holding the elections now was not the preferred outcome for the Bush administration, and the results of the election are probably not their preferred outcome, either. But as one Iraqi put it (addressing people whose positions on Iraq are simply a function of whether they like or hate the Bush administration): "It's not all about you."

Also, the fact that some people in the US government would have preferred to see a victory for the Allawi list--which is plausible--doesn't necessarily mean that, in objective terms, this would actually have been the best outcome for long-term US interests in Iraq.