W's Election Avoidance System
January 28, 2004

Maria Tomchick

In his state of the union address, George W. Bush pledged to "finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq." That's a promise which differs markedly from the reality on the ground.

This past week, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis marched in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, and other cities to demand democracy in Iraq. Their main target: a proposal by the Bush administration to select a new interim legislature to take over from the US military in July. "Selections" instead of "elections" are what US viceroy Paul Bremer is touting, a process whereby local caucuses--most of them selected by officials put in place by the US military on the recommendations of Iraqi exile groups--will select the delegates for the new interim legislature.

Iraqis object to this process for many reasons, and not only because it's less democratic than a popular election. They've had nine months to experience life under US occupation and a corrupt and incompetent US-appointed Governing Council. During that time, they've experienced food shortages, blackouts, lack of fuel to heat their homes and cook their food, long lines at the gas pump, high unemployment, even higher inflation, an unending string of car bombings punctuated by nighttime searches of their homes by US troops, and the indignity of having to deal with a government staffed by returning exiles who have little or no knowledge of life in Iraq. One can forgive them for wanting change.

The demonstrations were an effort to put pressure on the US and the UN, whose representatives, Paul Bremer and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, met in New York this week to discuss involving the United Nations, not in organizing elections (its specialty), but in persuading the Iraqi people that a selection process is in their best interest. Kofi Annan is, understandably, somewhat less than enthusiastic for this prospect.

For one thing, in spite of Bush administration statements to the contrary, elections are a real and viable possibility in Iraq. All of the Bush administration objections to elections can be easily addressed and dismissed. There are three stated reasons for depriving Iraqis of the right to vote for their own leaders: 1) the security situation won't allow free and fair elections, 2) there is no census or voter registration roll, and 3) a hasty election will produce "bad" results.

After weeks of assuring the US press and public that the security situation in Iraq is improving after the capture of Saddam Hussein, it's a little suspicious to argue now that the security situation is so bad that elections can't be held. The US government has historically made few or no objections to elections held under the cloud of violence. One example would be the East Timorese independence referendum, which saw outrageous acts of violence perpetrated by the Indonesian military and its proxies in East Timor--and the election results (independence for East Timor) were not invalidated but upheld by the United Nations and the United States. A similar example would be the current violence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has regained control of portions of southeastern provinces and driven out UN voter registration workers and fighting between rival warlords has brought a halt to voter registration in other areas of the countryside. But the US has not called a halt to the election process in Afghanistan or provided additional troops for security, in spite of warnings by the UN's representative Lakhdar Brahimi that a free and fair election is in jeopardy.

One could go on to argue that announcing democratic elections in Iraq within the coming year might actually improve the security situation by giving Iraqis something to hope for, for a change. It would have the additional benefit of undermining the Iraqi guerrilla movement, especially those elements fighting for Iraqi self-determination. Hold an election and many of these folks will put down their guns.

As for voter rolls and census information, two detailed and accurate databases exist of Iraqis who received food rations under the UN's Oil For Food Program. These databases were updated on a monthly basis, providing more current information than even the census data used in the United States to draw up legislative districts. There are, of course, two groups of people not represented on these databases: political enemies of Saddam Hussein who were dropped off the roles as a form of punishment, and Iraqi exiles. Those two groups, however, are relatively small and can be registered through a voter registration program--one that has a much better chance of succeeding than the one that's limping along in Afghanistan.

The final objection of the Bush administration--that "hasty" elections will bring a "bad" result--are based on fears that Shiite Muslim fundamentalists will take power in Iraq and ally themselves with the Shiite fundamentalist rulers of neighboring Iran. Shiites make up about 60% of the Iraqi population, and their main community organizations center around the Hawza, a religious foundation that provides everything from security for local Shiite communities to funding for education and social welfare projects throughout southern Iraq. The Hawza is a primarily religious group run by Shiite clerics, and the very thought that the Hawza may become politicized and take control of Iraqi government gives Paul Bremer and George W. Bush night sweats.

Yet the leader of the Hawza, Grand Ayatollah ali-Sistani, has remained ardently anti-political throughout his whole life, preferring to take a stance that opposes the rule of clerics in Iran. He has refused to meet with Paul Bremer or any other US citizen, speaking instead with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and limiting his "political" pronouncements to a general call for democracy and elections in Iraq. He has, numerous times, refused to condone violence or any Shiite uprising against the US military occupation--and there have been many younger and more radical Shiite clerics who have urged him to do so.

Ali-Sistani has, in short, proven himself to be a moderate element in Iraq, the very kind of group that the Bush administration supposedly wants to encourage. Yet Paul Bremer continues to promote the selection process and scorn elections, while the Bush administration remains adamant that the new interim legislature must be in place by June 30th. Ali-Sistani has commented that this arbitrary deadline seems to have been set by George Bush's reelection campaign committee in order to provide a political victory for Bush going into the November elections, and he's correct.

So it comes down to this: what the Bush administration fears is that an election will bring to power a legislature that truly represents the people of Iraq and is responsive to their needs and desires. Such a body would foreclose attempts by the US, the World Bank, the IMF, and developed nations--including Japan, Russia, Germany, and France--to privatize Iraq's state industries and extract its resources for the benefit of foreign corporations. The "bad" result is a democratic one, and the Bush administration will resist democracy in any way it can.

Of course, elections remain the best way for the US to scramble out of the quagmire in Iraq, but George W. Bush Inc. is intent on digging us in deeper.