Monday, October 17, 2005

Iraqis vote again (Normblog)

(Guest posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog)

Iraqis vote again

(by Jeff Weintraub)

Iraqi voters have done it again.

The January 30 elections in Iraq were a political earthquake that, among other things, transformed the calculus of legitimacy in Iraqi politics and put the future of Iraq, for good or ill, fundamentally in the hands of Iraqis. In the face of ongoing violence and chaos, and of highly plausible threats by the Sunni Arab 'insurgents' to kill anyone who voted, the elections were also an impressive achievement. Even someone like the veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk, an impeccably anti-American observer who bitterly opposed the 2003 Iraq war, could not help being moved by the spectacle and by the 'immense courage' of the Iraqis who came out to vote.

Even as the explosions thundered over Baghdad, the people came in their hundreds and then in their thousands. Entire families, crippled old men supported by their sons, children beside them, babies in the arms of their mothers, sisters and aunts and cousins. [....] That is how the Shia Muslims of Baghdad voted yesterday. They walked quietly to the Martyr Mohamed Bakr Hakim School in Jadriya, without talking, through the car-less streets, the air pressure changing around them as mortars rained down on the US and British embassy compounds and the first of the day's suicide bombers immolated himself and his victims - most of them Shias - two miles away. The Kurds voted, too, in their tens of thousands, but the Sunnis - 20 per cent of Iraq's population, whose insurgency was the principal reason for this election - boycotted or were intimidated from the polling stations. [....] And yes, of course, there was the violence we all expected. There were to be nine suicide bombers in Baghdad - the largest number on a single day anywhere in the Middle East. [....] In all, almost 50 men and women were killed across Iraq. [....] Of course, it was the sight of thousands of Shias, the women in black "hijab" covering, the men in leather jackets or long robes, the children toddling beside them, that took the breath away. If Osama bin Laden had called these elections an apostasy, many did not heed his Wahabi threats.
In the ten months since then, much of the excitement and optimism that followed the elections has, unsurprisingly, been deflated. The grand spectacle of the election gave way to the mundane realities of confused political maneuvering and ethno-religious tensions; the continuing violence of insurgency and counter-insurgency, with increasingly murderous and indiscriminate attacks on Shiite civilians by the Sunni Arab insurgents; the continuing lack of adequate civil order in much of the country, which forces Iraqis to deal with high levels of everyday insecurity, crime, economic anxieties, electrical blackouts, and so on - in short, with the combined effects of a murderous fascist/jihadi 'insurgency', the spectacular mismanagement of the post-Saddam occupation and reconstruction of Iraq by US authorities, and the long-term social and political pathologies that are a legacy of decades of Ba'athist rule.

For several months now, we have all been hearing pseudo-'realistic' analyses from a range of sources claiming that Iraqis were much too disillusioned with politics, and much too consumed with the problems of their daily lives, to be seriously concerned with something so abstract as a draft constitution - especially one whose text many of them had barely had a chance to see, and which kept getting amended until just before the referendum.

Well, the Iraqis have proved them wrong again. On Saturday, October 15, millions of them once again came out to vote, many of them standing in lines for hours - not the safest thing to do in Iraq these days. Overall turnout once again seems to have been more than 60%, despite fluctuations in some areas of the south. And in contrast to the January 30 elections, turnout was high in many Sunni Arab areas. (Norman Geras's Iraqi referendum roundup on Saturday captured many key highlights from the news and commentary, including some illuminating reactions from Iraqis. See also Sunday's reports from the BBC News and the Associated Press.)

One should begin by acknowledging some obvious caveats and qualifications. Holding elections is not enough, by itself, to establish a viable and stable political regime, let alone a democratic one. And the conditions under which Saturday's referendum was held left a lot to be desired. In some respects, the process of drafting the constitution led to further polarization and political confusion, rather than promoting an inclusive and workable national consensus. A range of factors - including, but not limited to, the situation of pervasive insecurity - made it impossible to hold a satisfactory public debate over the terms of the draft constitution. And even if the draft constitution were an ideal document (something that no one pretends it is), that wouldn't be enough, by itself, to counteract the political forces that may be tearing the country apart and making parts of it ungovernable. It would be naive, superficial, and misleading to try to ignore these and other problems.

On the other hand, it would also be misleading, superficial, and naively cynical - not to mention dishonest - to ignore the fact that the heavy vote in Saturday's referendum constituted a real and important political fact. Twice in one year now, Iraqis have turned out to vote by the millions, in the face of very credible threats that they would be murdered for doing so. In the January 30 elections, it was the Shiite Arabs and Kurds, along with a range of smaller minorities, who turned out to vote, while the Sunni Arabs almost all stayed away. This time, it appears that voter turnout in many - perhaps most - of the Sunni Arab areas was also high. It's likely that most of them turned out to vote against the constitution, not in favour of it, but they still risked deadly reprisals for doing so, and at the very least their participation marked a tactical acceptance by significant elements within the Sunni Arab community of the need to enter into the Iraqi political process to pursue their goals.

The full significance of the referendum will only begin to be clear, of course, after we know the results. However, one conclusion can be drawn immediately. Whatever else they meant, both the January 30 election and Saturday's vote constituted a referendum on the so-called 'insurgency'. The insurgents themselves helped to define things this way, by denouncing both exercises as inherently illegitimate and by threatening to kill anyone who voted. (This is an especially effective threat since voters' fingers were marked with indelible ink.) In both cases, the insurgents were repudiated by a decisive majority of Iraqis - to repeat, at considerable personal risk.

Of course, some people will argue that this was a pointless and deluded effort, since the objective prospects for avoiding all-out civil war and disaster in Iraq are hopeless, and since none of the major Iraqi political forces have either the intention or the capacity to put together a stable and decent regime. Therefore, the US and Britain should simply cut their losses, abandon Iraq, and let the Iraqis fight it out (most likely with direct or indirect intervention by neighbouring regional powers). I disagree, but those are matters for a longer discussion elsewhere.

But whatever the immediate results of this referendum turn out to be, and whether or not they help to promote positive long-term consequences in Iraqi politics (a matter about which I concede it's hard to feel excessively optimistic), yesterday's vote was nevertheless an impressive political achievement with a certain amount of genuine grandeur. In pulling it off, Iraqis displayed real courage and determination. That only helps to cement my own conviction that Iraqis deserve to be supported, not abandoned. (Jeff Weintraub)