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Paul Buchanan: The Election Gambit In Iraq

The Election Gambit In Iraq


By Paul G. Buchanan
10-14-04

Once again the US has a self-made problem in Iraq. It has staked the ethereal timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops on holding “free and fair” elections in January 2005. Arguments (some within the Bush administration) now focus on whether the security situation is such than any elections can be held, much less elections that are free and fair. But that ignores a bigger issue. Leave aside the fact that most people in Iraq would not know the difference between a free and fair election and a manipulated one (which is not that onerous a sin, since many US citizens suffer from the same ignorance, as the presidential campaign of 2000 and ongoing irregularities in voter registration in places like Florida demonstrate). After all, Iraqis have no prior experience with Western-style elections, unlike their US counterparts, so it is unreasonable to suppose that they will automatically recognise the worth of universal suffrage, secret ballots and electoral contestation—particularly those in the Sunni population who had benefited from the authoritarian impositions of the deposed Ba’athist regime. Thus, what is more important to emphasize in Iraq are elections as a vehicle for giving previously disenfranchised people some semblance of voice, regardless of whether they are “free and fair” by Western standards.

There is little point in re-hashing the false premises upon which the invasion occurred or whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. What must be confronted is the reality on the ground in Iraq. Given the murderous guerrilla campaign to destabilise the electoral timetable, the Allawi provisional government, for all its disputed legitimacy, needs to play political hardball rather than cancel elections or make pretence of universal fairness. The offer across the table should be to play or suffer the consequences. Most of the insurgency emanates from the Sunni-controlled regions, abetted by internationalist jihadi factions uninterested in anything Western in contrivance. Politically dominant under the rule of their ethnic kin Saddam Hussein, the Sunni are a minority in their own country. They are dwarfed by the Shiite majority in Central and Southern Iraq and uneasily share space with Kurds to the North, conscious of the fact that large numbers of both were slaughtered during Saddam’s reign. The Shiia, for all their resentment of the US occupation, have well founded and long term grievances against the Sunnis that fuel a thirst for revenge within their ranks. The Kurds have been more restrained in their bloodlust, preferring to be a remarkably loyal and consistent ally of the “coalition of the willing” in the areas that they physically control. But they may not always be so restrained in their approach towards their former oppressors, especially if political differences between them remain non-institutionalised.

Elections are therefore a means to impose some measure of mutual self-restraint on the otherwise darker ambitions of these groups. In other words, the Sunni community needs elections for their own protection. That fact has yet to become apparent to them.

Instead, it is from Sunni quarters that the major attempts to disrupt the election have come. The Iran-backed resistance of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army and associated militias is merely an attempt to move the political marker in a direction more amenable to Shiia (and thus Iranian) interests prior to the announcement of election rules and timetables. The Iranians understand the importance of stabilising Iraq on terms that are favourable to them, and for all their machinations, will stop short of supporting a generalised Shiia armed uprising against the US in Iraq. The violent jockeying for position aside, any electoral outcome in Iraq favours the enfranchised majority Shiia population, and will result in the withdrawal of foreign occupying troops from Shiia majority areas. The partial disarmament of Shiia militias in recent weapons buy-back campaigns in exchange for US troops withdrawing from Najaf and Sadr City, and al-Sadr’s hints at joining the political process, are positive steps in this direction.

Even if the elections are proportionally unfair to the Shiia population because of Sunni over-representation (although Shiia will retain a majority voice in any new Iraqi parliament due to their sheer numbers), the Shiia leaders and Iranians will accept the holding of elections and the results because it is in their interest to do so. That could open the door to negotiations between Iran and Western nations on other matters beyond the stabilisation of areas in which the Iranians have influence (such as Basra). Trade-off between influence in Iraq and abandonment of its nuclear weapons program might underline the Iranian strategy, and if so looks like a reasonable ploy.

The electoral gambit in Iraq is therefore not so much about holding them or not, or about them being free and fair by Western standards. It is about being in or out. The Allawi government can offer the Sunni population two options. Either they can be represented in the elections, with a postponement of the January deadline offered if necessary in exchange for a list of viable candidates and proportional representation that over-values their relative numbers (but not to the extent of overcoming the Shiia demographic advantage or displacing the Kurds as the swing vote); or they can be excluded altogether. The former requires that they agree to a cease-fire with coalition forces and stop supporting violence directed against fellow Iraqis and international non-combatants, to include UN election monitors and foreign civilian assistance personnel. The latter implies that they will be subordinate to the Shiite/Kurd coalition (with apologies to the small Christian and Jewish communities) that will inevitably emerge victorious from the partial vote in which they are excluded because of security concerns. The options are stark, because the Sunnis are very aware that political and ethnic paybacks in the absence of institutional representation can be and usually are extremely unpleasant, at least in Iraq.

The take it or leave it approach to the elections, with timetables possibly delayed just enough to allow the moderate Sunni population to draw up a list of candidates who command loyalty from different tribal clans, will put the ball squarely in the Sunni insurgents court. To get the Americans and their allies out, and yet be represented in a proportional system in which they have a significant voice (since the days of direct imposition via a minority dictatorship like Saddam’s are clearly gone), the Sunni leadership has to resolve its internal differences and agree to the vote. That means quelling the militants amongst their ranks, especially the jihadis, and it is by a wink and a nod to the occupying authorities and Iraqi security forces that they can do so. . Allawi’s ultimatum with regard to the disarmament of Falluja and handing over of foreign combatants is a move in that direction.

For their part, Sunni militants can either desist now in order to have longer-term political prospects, or be the recipients of the selectively targeted repression sure to come their way in the event that the majority of their co-religionists decide it is best to live in proportional peace than perpetual conflict. To be sure, the process would not be completely free or completely fair. The elections would not be fair because they would disproportionately over-represent the Sunni’s. They would not be free because they would largely be the product of elite bargaining amongst tribal chieftains about the rules and who will stand as candidates (rather than the result of grassroots campaigning). But they would have the virtue of bringing the major power contenders to the table.

If the Sunnis refuse the offer, they legitimate by negative choice the unrepresentative elections that do take place at a time not of their choosing. Sunnis in Kurdish and Shiia controlled areas would consequently have little say in the matters that immediately affect them, and Sunni-majority regions would remain encircled and subject to the dictates of occupation authorities freed of security responsibilities in Kurdish and Shiia-controlled regions. All other parties to the election can claim that the Sunnis had their chance but passed on the opportunity, preferring to continue the cycle of violence rather than accept a place in a post-Saddam, post-occupation regime (in which former Ba’athists could well be an influential component, something to which Allawi has alluded).

Should Sunni irredentism continue, divide and conquer strategies vis a vis contending Sunni factions will become the preferred Western option, and accommodation with Iran and the Kurds about territorial partition of what is, after all, a legacy of British colonialism could become a more distinct possibility. Gone are the days when the physical integrity of Iraq is the most important concern of the West. Today the priority is stability and relative peace leading to the end of sectarian terrorism and withdrawal of occupation forces, which means that the toleration of political costs transcends the post-colonial, Cold War and post- Cold War thresholds extant until now. That is why, among other things, that Iranian influence in Shiia-controlled areas is now considered tolerable.

As it turns out, George Bush Senior was right: absent Saddam Hussein, Iraqi politics devolved in centrifugal fashion. The upcoming election is an effort to retain some semblance of federation politics in a country where otherwise an internecine power struggle will ensure into which will be drawn more than the religio-ethnic belligerents. Should that scenario become a possibility, ethno-political partition of Iraq becomes a distinct option. The Sunnis need to consider this, if for no other reason than the fact that the economic lifeline of the nation begins and ends outside of their territory. Even if they attempt to engage in economic sabotage of the oil resource infrastructure to which they have access, the vested interests of the other ethnic groups and foreign consumers, backed by the focused security provided by coalition forces, will make the task far more difficult than it is at present.

It may be impolitic to say, but in a region where political hardball is the norm, subtleties of Western electoral representation are lost on those who have traditionally ruled by the sword. It is therefore unrealistic to ask for voluntary Sunni co-operation in the January vote, since they know that in any national election they will lose their former positions of disproportionate power. The reasons why moderate Sunni leaders claim there is little support in the Sunni population for elections should therefore be intuitively obvious. Sunnis in Iraq have always ruled by force and elite accommodation, not universal representation. It is not clear to them that they necessarily need to co-operate in order to retain a measure of voice in a post-Saddam regime, particularly given the fluid tenor of affairs in Iraq. By encouraging resistance against the plans of a foreign-appointed provisional government, they figure on securing a bigger share of the political pie than otherwise would obtain. Cancelling elections would do just that. Trying to make them free and fair would be an exercise in futility.

The US administration and Allawi government may be thinking along these lines, but if so they have not enunciated their position clearly. The UN and other major Western countries have been conspicuously silent on the matter. Yet, it is obvious that in spite of their well-founded reservations about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the UN and neighbouring Arab states have to support the gambit for it to succeed. It is in their interest to do so because it opens the door for US withdrawal and the stabilisation of Iraqi politics along traditional ethnic lines in which neighbouring countries can exercise moderating influence. This is especially true if the November elections in the US bring about a change of government, since the Democrats are committed to restoring multilateral ties damaged by the Bush administration’s policy of unilateral pre-emption. At the point the international community can relieve the US of its responsibility as moderator in internal Iraqi disputes.

Aside from the external interest in the gambit, the more important consideration is that it offers an exit from foreign occupation initiated by Iraqis on terms largely of their own making. It may not automatically bring peace and stability, but it would certainly do little to worsen what is, by all objective accounts, a no-win situation as presently construed.

*************

Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. He is currently a Visiting Fellow of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Lisbon.

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