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Nationalism & Pragmatism In Iraq’s Election

Nationalism And Pragmatism In Iraq’s Foundational Election.

By Paul G. Buchanan

The surprisingly large voter turn-out in the January 31 Iraq elections, held in spite of a pervasive climate of fear punctuated by guerrilla attacks and mass murder on the part of die hard Baathist and Islamicist guerrillas, has occasioned a global sense of relief and anticipation for the future of that country. In refusing to be intimidated and turning out in startling numbers, Iraqis have shown their backs to the militants in their midst. Even a small and courageous minority of Sunnis defied the calls of a total boycott by their religious and ethnic leaders, joining the masses of Shiia and Kurdish Iraqis in choosing the electoral road towards a post-authoritarian future. This election, known as a foundation election because it establishes a basis for the crafting of a new Iraq constitution and the holding of free and transparent elections in the near future, represents the first tentative step on that path.

Having staked its entire political fortune and the US international reputation on the Iraq venture, the Bush administration was quick to hail the vote for a new Iraqi National Assembly and provincial councils as a triumph of freedom over tyranny, and the first step towards democracy in that part of the world. This gives it an ex post rationale for launching the invasion after the original justifications of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda links proved false.

Iraqi voters spoke of the freedom to choose after years of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, but for them, the question was freedom from whom? As it turns out, and contrary to what the US has claimed, Iraqi voters were voting not in favour of freedom from Saddam, but for freedom from the US occupiers.

Two features of Iraqi political culture merged to forge the majority view of why these elections needed to be supported: nationalism and pragmatism. On the one hand, Iraqis of all ethnic and religious persuasions have an overwhelming desire to reclaim control over their national destiny. They may disagree on the exact nature of that destiny, but they concur that it has to be made by Iraqis for Iraqis free and unencumbered by the constraints of foreign interests. More than anything else, it was a sense of shared national pride that brought the disparate factions together in supporting the call to elections in the face of the militant attempts to thwart the popular will. It was the desire to reclaim their common heritage, identity and destiny from the foreign “others” that brought the erstwhile contending factions in Iraq to the polling stations. As of yet incomplete and small, it is a very real step towards a better future.

The second feature that played into the success of the election was a sense of pragmatism on the part of the Iraqi electorate. With the US president having staked his personal reputation on “staying the course” in Iraq regardless of the costs, and whose personality tends towards stubbornness (or what his supporters call “steadfastness of purpose”), Iraqis understood that continuation of the unconventional war of resistance against the US occupation forces would only prolong the occupation and delay the day of the achievement of national self-determination.

Ending the occupation is the primary objective of most Iraqis, so the most practical thing to do was to accept the elections as the best means of getting the foreign troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. The timetable for withdrawing troops began with the holding of elections, and although security considerations mean that the US will retain a military presence in Iraq for at least two more years, devolution of local security operations to the newly elected provincial councils and Iraqi Army will ease the way for a reduction in troop numbers during the interim.

Moreover, by devolving security authority to local authorities, the US can concentrate its military forces in and around the restive Sunni areas where militant support remains strong. Local intelligence and Iraqi troop and police commitment will improve in the areas where security authority has been turned over to local elected leaders for the simple reason that orders will no longer being given by the foreign occupiers. Shiia and Kurdish authorities will be able to respond more quickly and decisively against continued militant aggression because they have the support of their respective populations. All of this opens space for moderate Sunni leaders to argue in favour of a negotiated compromise in which their participation in constitutional drafting sessions and future elections is exchanged for repudiation of the militants. After all, there are not one but two foreign armed forces in Iraq: the “Coalition of the Willing” and the al-Qaeda-linked jihadis, neither of which are particularly welcome, if in different measure, by the majority of Iraqis. As for the armed Baathist remnants, their days are numbered in the measure that more and more of their co-religionists opt for the safety of the negotiated solution.

To be sure, elections do not equate with democracy, no matter how much the US claims it to be so. In Iraq, that would mean creating something out of nothing, and the political terrain in that country is particularly barren when it comes to sowing the seeds of tolerance, equality and contingent consent that are the ideological humus of democratic governance. It could well be the fate of Iraq that like in other parts of the world, what emerges in the post-Saddam era is not so much a democracy as it is a new type of electoral authoritarian regime, with the Shiia in positions of power for the first time. But there are many ways to prevent that, and the combination of nationalism and pragmatism in Iraq’s political culture suggests that a shared sense of the need for peace and stability after years of authoritarian rule, international sanctions and nearly-continuous war would forge a consensus towards power-sharing and balancing when it comes to recreating political institutions out of the ashes of the Baathist regime and various post-invasion interim governments.

Thus, it may not be so much the thirst for democracy that compelled the Iraqi masses to the polls (since few inside Iraq have experience with that form of government), but the shared contempt of foreign occupation and desire to reclaim control over their collective fortunes that swayed the balance of public opinion in favour of elections. In turn, the success of the elections gives the Bush administration justification to begin an exit strategy just as US domestic public opinion was turning decisively against continuing the military presence in Iraq. Thus the US gets credit for bringing the situation about, although not for reasons or in the way that it projected. The relative success of the elections was not so much the triumph of freedom over tyranny and evil, but the practical result of a people fed up with the indignities of occupation seeking the most expedient way out. In this merger of contravening logics Iraqi political history was made.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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