A day of hope and a vote for a future

It is not quite right to say that today is the first time that Iraq’s people have had the opportunity to go to the polls. Saddam Hussein used to ask for endorsements of his rule which would invariably see him triumphantly claiming to have received 99,9% of the vote.

Those who have pre-condemned Sunday’s elections in Iraq as a chaotic mess bound to lead to even more violent mayhem would perhaps prefer Saddam’s version of elections. They were always predictable in their outcome.

I am not going to forecast what will ultimately flow from these elections, a stunningly rare event in the Arab world.
I know what I would like to see unfold. The vote is for 18 provincial assemblies, a Kurdish Parliament in the north and a National Assembly that will establish a provisional government and draw up a new Constitution to be put to a referendum before more elections in December. The embryo Constitution already drafted is pretty good. It is a prospectus for a federal republic with safeguards for religious and ethnic minorities. If that can be made real, Iraq has the potential to become a confident, prospering and tolerant state advertising the merits of an open society in a neighbourhood for so long dominated by police states and potentates.

True, this is hugely ambitious. One election a democracy does not make. Much can go wrong and horribly so. To be hopeful about Iraq is to invite being straitjacketed for insane optimism. But better that than the dismal certainties of those who have already denounced these elections as a doomed charade before a single result has been returned.

Some jeer this is just a staging post between foreign occupation and rule by an Islamic theocracy, a military strongman or a descent into civil war. Others disdain these elections on the grounds that they will ‘legitimise’ the occupation. Actually, if we get down to the realpolitik of London and Washington, the point of these elections is precisely the reverse.

What both the White House and Downing Street are now looking for is a way to legitimise a military exit strategy. Their desire is that the establishment of an elected Iraqi government will allow them to start planning to bring troops home. They are wary of announcing a timetable for withdrawal, not least for fear of providing dates for the insurgents to target. But secret scoping of how they might begin to reduce their forces has begun in the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence.

Some critics of the election seem to be urging democracy to fail in Iraq because they can’t stand the thought that it might permit George Bush or Tony Blair to claim credit for their war. It is true that both men, the Prime Minister especially, are anxious for this to be a turning point in Iraq in order to justify the war to both history and their domestic audiences.

The hunt for weapons of mass destruction has come up so empty-handed that it has been abandoned. The occupation has been conducted with staggering ineptitude. British ministers are now candid, in private at any rate, about how ill-prepared they were for the scale and violence of the opposition.

They also accept it was an enormous blunder when the Americans, brushing aside British protests that this might not be such a smart plan, abolished the Iraqi army and by doing so fed recruits to the insurgency and deprived the country of any indigenous security structure.

The terrible stain of Abu Ghraib, and the trial of British soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi detainees, has soured opinion against the invasion, even among many who originally supported the removal of Saddam. In order to be able to pluck something sweeter-smelling from amid so many bloody thorns, Tony Blair needs these elections to be seen as an indicator that Iraq’s future will now be brighter. And he wants to be able to offer evidence of this before he faces his election in Britain.

You can grasp why opponents of the war so loathe any prospect that Blair and Bush might be able to claim vindication from these elections. But to want democracy in Iraq to be a disaster simply to give yourself another reason to say: “I told you so” is to put your self-righteousness before a better chance for more than 25-million people.

Some are so anxious for Iraq to fail they even suggest that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy. Arabs can’t do the election thing we so take in our stride that less than half of British voters could be arsed to make a mark on a ballot paper at our most recent elections last spring. At best, this is hugely patronising; at worst, it is profoundly racist.

The elections in Iraq are clearly not a perfect exemplar of how to conduct a free and fair ballot. Death threats have prevented many candidates from campaigning or even revealing their identities. Violence is so acute in some areas that simply trying to exercise a vote is to take a gamble with your life.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq, has declared “fierce war on this evil principle of democracy” and branded as “infidel” any Iraqi trying to cast a ballot. Amid so much foggy prediction and fuzzy argument about the essential meaning of these elections, we should thank him for clarifying what is at stake. He makes explicit that the denial of freedom is the primary aim of that murderous fanatic and his allies.

Whatever the debate about how the country arrived at its present point, Iraq is now a battleground between those who seek a more democratic future and those attempting to annihilate any hope of it. The Americans and British have relearnt the old lesson that troops alone cannot conquer terrorism. Where force fails, votes can succeed. The ballot can beat the bullet. The more Iraqis who turn out in defiance of such murderous intimidation, the larger a defeat it will represent for extremism.

Rather than scoff at the manifest imperfections of this election, I marvel that it is happening at all. One hundred and eleven party groupings appear on the giant ballot sheets. There is no shortage of diversity. Communists compete with monarchists. Every third candidate on a party list must be a woman. Whether you are a fan of positive discrimination or not, it means that Iraq’s new assembly will be more representative of women than the Congress of the United States and many parliaments in Europe. Britain has yet to elect a House of Commons in which a third of its members are women.

Votes will be counted by a system of proportional representation so pure that it would gobsmack even a Liberal Democrat. A party that wins 1/275 of the vote will get one seat in the 275-member assembly. The executive positions have been designed to share power between Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups.

The main parties of the Shi’ites, excluded from power for many years in a country in which they are the majority, have been sounding secular, moderate, unvengeful and accommodating about wanting to work in government with Sunnis. Brave people have exposed themselves and their families to the risk of assassination to run for office. Sure, that courage is not the whole story. Iraqi politicians will be exposed as demagogues, fraudsters, stooges and deadbeats. That’s what power attracts. It always has and ever will and in places with much more developed democracies than Iraq.

Even if these elections go reasonably well, this can only be the first base on what will be a difficult climb out of Iraq’s long night of tyranny, war and terror. Knowing all that, millions of Iraqis will, nevertheless, defy the attempts to bully and murder them out of their democratic rights. These elections, however imperfect, give them a chance to start taking charge of their own future.

There are moments to be sceptical about politics and there are moments to be inspired by its possibilities. Sunday is a day for the latter. People prepared to risk their lives to vote deserve not our cynicism, but our respect and hope. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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