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Elections

Elections without reconciliation

by Ghassan Atiyaah
US soldiers preparing a polling station.

US soldiers preparing a polling station.

Democracy is not only about elections. By now, this is a fact. However, free and fair elections are one of the major components of healthy democracy. For achieving those free and fair elections, certain prerequisites have to be met. One of them – to be sure – is the rule of law. Another one is the sense of citizenship. In a country like Iraq, this might be one of the most challenging problems, in building a democratic state. [ By Ghassan Atiyyah ]

In any sectarian and ethnically divided country, national reconciliation should precede elections. Only in this way would the elections be accepted as a part of the new game’s rule. In reality though, countries which are lacking democratic traditions have the tendency to abuse the electoral system for ethnic and sectarian purposes.

Iraq is a highly diverse country – ethnically, religiously, socially and culturally. In its history, these differences always were suppressed. The divisions were glossed over, not faced. The US led invasion of Iraq and the lack of effective post-war plans opened the gates for a new war – the war of identity among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups – the Kurds, Shia and Sunni.

Rush for elections

It was especially the lack of an American post-Saddam plan, as well as the deteriorating security situation, that convinced the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to call for an early election. They wanted to defer the rising Shia pressure, especially the power that came from Grand Ayat Illah Al-Sistani in Najaf. But they forgot that the violent collapse of the regime of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein had left a huge political vacuum.

On the one side, it was filled by two Kurdish parties who were already established in their semi-independent enclave. On the other side, there were the well-organised Shia islamist parties, like the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Al Dawa party. Both were supported by Iran. But the secular movements, whether left, nationalist or liberal, were far from being organised. In contrast, the old Saddam party – the Baathist Movement – had been very well organised. However, they were disbanded and outlawed by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

The power that filled the political vacuum were religious forces: The Mosques and the Shia religious praying houses – the Husainia – became instant political centers. During the last elections it became evident that, together with the demography, the Islamic traditions were hindering the peaceful transition to a democratic state. Islamic clergy, for example, did not respect the right to vote as an individual right. They saw it as an exercise of Religious duty as a member of community or sect and influenced people’s votes heavily – on all sides.

Elections in war time

After the coalition forces toppled the Saddam-regime, all state institutions collapsed – without effective replacement. There was no security, because the Army and police forces were dissolved. Also social services, like health, transport and electricity failed to perform. In these uncertain times, people reverted to their traditional ethnic, social and sectarian groups for protection. But instead of uniting people, it was pulling them apart. Soon major political parties expanded their militias as a source of power. At the same time, disaffected tribal, sectarian or ethnic groups resorted to violence to deny central and local authorities stability.

When the elections took place in January 2005, one major constituent of the Iraqi society was absent: The Sunni Arabs. Most of them were in open rebellion. So they boycotted the elections for the parliament to draft a new Iraqi constitution.

The Iraqi government recently declared its intention to disenfranchise any party with a militia. In retrospect it seems ironic that the same parties were allowed to take part in the elections of 2005. This was clearly a benefit for the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) with its Badr Brigades and the two Kurdish political parties with their Peshmerga. Rushing to elections clearly played into their hands, since the new parliament was dominated by the Shia Islamist and the Kurdish blocks. It was up to them to draft a constitution which later on was totally rejected by the Sunni Arabs.

So, in the end nothing really was won. Instead of using the constitutional process to further political reconciliation, they enhanced the sectarian and ethnic polarization, thus rendering Iraqi politics into a zero sum game.

Now parliament has to face the problem of amending the constitution – and it failed to meet the deadline which was the end of last year. The case of Iraq therefore is ironic: Two elections were conducted and a new constitution was adopted within only one year – doing so took several years in South Africa after the apartheid regime, or in Germany and Japan after World War II.

Growing suspicions

On top of rushing through the electoral and constitution-making process, the Iraqi government and the Coalition Provisional Authority adopted an electoral system which favoured the big organised parties by considering Iraq as a single electoral district. The election was based on a proportional closed list. So voters voted for ethnic or sectarian lists rather than for individuals. This make-up therefore deepened the mistrust between the different sections of society.

Then the electoral commission failed to limit the violations. Some members even came under pressure from different political groups – even though the electoral commission should be impartial. The same commission was later reorganised on party basis, giving the Shia Islamist and the Kurdish parties a dominant role.

Regional obstacles

One very important issue in the context of Iraq is the regional set-up. In Western Europe for example, the democratic neighbourhood helped the East European neighbouring states to conduct a successful transition to democracy. Unfortunately, Iraq does not have those positive influences. It adjoins Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. And they have their own ideas of what is best for Iraq.

In fact, it was also due to some ill-fated laws that the governments in Teheran and other neighbouring states had more influence in Iraq then ever. For example, there was no political-parties law in Iraq. Instead, the former administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, US diplomat Paul Bremer, passed a ‘political entities law’, which failed to ensure the necessary supervision on the funding and constitution of the parties. This gave outsiders the opportunity to interfere with politics in Post-Saddam Iraq. In practice all the big winners of the election received outside funding, directly and indirectly, and it mainly came from Iran and some Arab countries.

Does Iraq have a future?

In these times, Iraq politics finds itself in a deadlock. Any change in the electoral law depends on the dominating ethnic and sectarian parties, the Shia Islamist alliance and the Kurdish parties. Both have gained from the present electoral system and laws. Therefore neither political force sees an incentive for radical change. Instead, the danger of partition becomes more evident. When ethnic and sectarian groups are related to a specific territory – as is the case with the Shia and Kurds in Iraq – the tendency is for a break-up of the country. This is what the Sunnis are fighting against – and they probably will continue doing so until they get their share of power. In this respect, the Iraqi election of 2005 was a classic case of “how not to conduct an election”.

But there are more major developments. Most notably, since 2007, there are splits within the Sunni Arab as well as the Shia Arab groups. On the one hand, the Awakening groups emerged. They were financed by the US, and they help to calm down the violence on a short term basis. On the other hand, the Shia alliance suffered big divisions between the Al-Hakim party (SCIRI) and the Al Sadirist group.

Under these conditions, there will be provincial elections this October. They are supposed to count as a new milestone, because these elections will also be open to Shia and Sunni groups which boycotted the previous election. They are expected to win many seats, so there is some hope that the political deadlock will end.

But the provincial election will also be a real test for the government and future of Iraq in terms of federalism – especially in the Shia South. While SCIRI calls for a mega Shia federal entity in the south encompassing nine southern provinces, the Sadrists want to have a unitary state with the exception of Kurdistan. The recent fighting in Basra showed that this disparity is not dealt with only in negotiations and compromise. This is one more reason why in the end it does not look very promising for a democratic and peaceful future in Iraq.