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Unraveling Seeming Paradoxes Of The Iraqi Election

Beyond Interpretation: Faleh A Jabar* Unravels The Seeming Paradoxes Of The Iraqi Election

Faleh A Jabar* unravels the seeming paradoxes of the Iraqi election

Sunday's announcement, 13 days after the poll took place, of the results of Iraq's first contested elections in half a century, will determine the make up of local provincial government, the Kurdish regional government and, most importantly, the constituent assembly charged with drafting the permanent constitution.

Even before the votes were counted sundry interpretations were made. Salafis, like the Jordanian extremist Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, denounced the elections as a failure. US President George W Bush extolled them as a slap in the face of terrorism. Iran, top of Bush's second term hit list, viewed them as a rebuke to Washington. In the West the left dismissed elections held under occupation as little more than a conspiracy and they were quickly joined by Baath restorationists and their Arab supporters. Iraqi voters, rightly or wrongly, thought of them as a miracle of kinds, a feat of defiance on the part of the voter. Iraq's elections, at once a defeat and a victory, the vehicle of both honour and shame, for Iraq, the US, the Arabs, exhibited all the paradoxes of globalised liberalism.

Hardly had the polls closed before the event itself was overshadowed by interpretations of what it might portend. Iraq stands at a crossroads and, like Janus, the Roman god of doorways, faces in more than one direction. This multi-ethnic, multi- religious and multi-cultural nation is, under occupation, on the brink of breaking the sectarian monopoly of power and national wealth. The chronic divorce of nation and state could well be reaching an end. And it is a transition characterised by a tilt towards Islamist conservatism, with all its geopolitical consequences.


It was the Iraqis who pushed for elections. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), under US appointee Paul Bremer, wanted a 3-5 year period in which to restructure Iraq at will along radical liberal lines. What they had failed to factor in to their equation was Iraqi nationalism.

The transfer of sovereignty in June 2004, and last month's elections, came about because of Iraqi, and not CPA, demands.

That elections, symbol of a popularly mandated and peaceful transition, should so capture the imagination of the majority of Iraqis wrong-footed the media, taking regional commentators as much by surprise as it did those, hailing mainly from Sunni areas, driving violence.

Radical Sunni groups, Salafis and restorationists, abhor any peaceful or institutional political process. Sunni liberals, on the other hand, toyed with the idea of boycott but at the last moment took an active part in the process. The moderate Islamic Party -- the old Sunni Muslim Brothers -- adopted a different position: it pulled out of the contest while announcing it was prepared to take part in the post-election constitutional process.

Those forces, both Iraqi and regional, seeking to derail elections, failed miserably. The twin tactics of intimidation and boycott failed to prevent 8.5 of some 13-14 million eligible voters from going to the polls. Thirteen suicide bombers, one suffering from Downs Syndrome, were sent on their missions. A handful of poll centres were targets of mortar rounds and there were two reports of gunfire. And that, more or less, was that.

Voters had expected worse. Early birds showed up before 9.00am to avoid attacks. The more audacious ventured out at what many suspected would be the most hazardous time. The bulk waited. Then, by midday, voters rightly guessed Salafi attackers had deployed all they had. The masses poured into voting stations, amazing themselves and the world.

Violent opposition groups had singularly failed to grasp the depth of pro-election sentiments. More than two hundred political entities registered. Tens of thousands stood as candidates. Volunteers flooded to help the Independent Commission for Elections in Iraq, manning 600 registry offices and 9,000 voting stations nationwide in the face of threats, car bombs and assassinations. Their presence was a questioning of the legitimacy of such tactics. The majority of Iraqis viewed elections as means of restoring sovereignty. They could not understand how voting stations could become targets for paradise-bound Jihadists.


As expected the lowest turn out was in the Anbar province (two per cent). Diyala, another violent province, had 34 per cent of voters go to the polls. Baghdad, a mixed city, registered 45 per cent. The highest turnouts were in Kurdish areas, which recorded an average of 80 per cent, and in the Shia provinces of the south, where between 60-80 per cent of voters turned up at the polls.

That more than 150,000, many of them supporters of Interim President Ghazi Al- Yawar, voted in Sunni Mosul came as a surprise, while even Saddam Hussein's home province of Salahuddin (Tikrit) saw 29 per cent of the electorate casting its vote.

Iraq's first pluralistic ballot betrayed a crisis of identity. As grand ideologies -- Arab socialist-nationalism in its Baath or communist guise, radical Islamism -- wane so local identity politics came to the fore, either confessional -- Shia versus Sunni -- or ethnic -- Kurdish versus Arab, Turkmen or Assyrian. And these new aggregate identities, a protest against earlier exclusion, were themselves fractured from within by city, tribal and family loyalties.

Religious institutions, freed from state control, developed into centres of mobilisation and recruitment. Several blocks emerged, most significantly the Shia bloc and the Kurdish list. Beyond these two broad coalitions dozens of liberal, leftist, Iraqi nationalist, tribal, monarchist and ethnic and religious groups orbited.

The Shia and Kurdish blocs had considerable resources at their disposal, both financial and organisational and including extensive infrastructure -- mosques, offices and, in certain cases, private militias -- in addition to the symbolic capital furnished by religion and ethnicity. The Shia list could also draw on the charisma of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, with Shia preachers repeatedly warning congregations of the wrath of God should they not vote for Al- Sistani's list.

The Shia bloc received 4,075,295, or 48.1 per cent, of votes. The Kurdish bloc secured 2,175,551, or 25.7 per cent. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Alawi, effectively single- handedly, secured 1,168,943 votes, or 13 per cent, appealing to the middle classes and stressing strong leadership and security, currently Iraq's most popular political commodities.

Dozens of other lists failed to secure the 30,000 votes required for a single seat in the constituent assembly. Only a few others survived, including the Iraqi Communist Party with 70,000 votes, the Al-Sadr faction, competing as Kawadir wa Nukhab (Cadres and Elites), with 65,000, and, on the back of his personal vote in Mosul, the list headed by Interim President Ghazi Al-Yawir.

Overall, Iraqis voted against the deposed Baath, for peaceful transition, for power sharing, for religious leaders, for an end to the monopolising of power and against chaos and violence.


The three successful blocs -- Al-Sistani, Kurdish and Alawi lists -- will determine the future of Iraq, while the failure of Sunnis opposed to elections to have them postponed has many repercussions.

It has strengthened the resolve of other groups to advocate legal ways of balanced power sharing and to restore Iraq's national sovereignty -- i.e. end the occupation -- peaceably. The dynamics of the Palestinian elections and national consensus-building have provided Iraqis with a strong case to cite and emulate.

The elections have legitimised national politics and created a momentum behind the constitutional process. Radical Sunnis, such as the Society of Muslim Ulama (Society of Doctors of Religion) led by Dr Harith Al- Dhari, an advocate of violent opposition, appeared stunned by the massive turn out and by their ensuing marginalisation. Their boycott of the process not only deprived them of any meaningful representation but allowed over representation of the Shia bloc. Had Sunnis gone to the polls the number of votes required per seat would have risen to 50,000. There are already signs that radical Sunnis are rethinking their position and searching for a face-saving exit.

While the success of the Shia bloc inevitably alarms secular and moderate players, domestic, regional and global, it should be remembered that it is an alliance of more than a dozen organisations and that half the list comprised independent candidates. The list encompasses trends in favour of Khomeinism, communalism and Islamic-liberal compromises. And while, for the time being, they will unite in their drive to elect a presidential council and form the transitional government, divisions will become apparent when the constitutional debate begins next month.

Already there is fierce competition between three candidates for the premiership -- the moderate Adil Abdul-Mahdi of SCIRI, the conservative Ibrahim Al- Jaafari of the Daawa Party and the notorious liberal opportunist Ahmed Chalabi. It is against such a backdrop that Sunni groups might stage a comeback, initially by involving themselves in drafting the constitution and then, should the outcome be unsatisfactory, by mobilising support so as to prevent the necessary quorum in the ensuing referendum. Should they succeed, then the elections that will have to follow in December 2005 will be far more inclusive.

Two days before the elections the first armoured Iraqi division was deployed and applauded by the public. If two other divisions can be combat ready by the end of this year, as planned, the confluence of political legitimacy and capacity building is likely to bring the insurgency to breaking point. At which time the possibility opens for a gradual reclaiming of the centre ground in Iraq's politics and the promotion of a more moderate trajectory.

* The writer is an Iraqi sociologist, research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of many books on Iraqi state, religion, tribes and discourses. His latest publication is: The Shi'ite Movement in Iraq , London, Saqi Books, 2003.

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