The Question of Elections in Iraq
In the past week, two significant demonstrations were launched by Iraq’s Shiites, including one on Monday 1/19 that involved an estimated 100,000 in the streets of Baghdad (including, from all accounts, some Sunnis who support open elections). The other, on Tuesday, was smaller and drawn from the poorer, more radical elements of the community who incline toward Muqtada al-Sadr. I cannot underline strongly enough how significant it is that Sistani was willing to go to the street in this way, and that so many tens of thousands responded.
This move seems to me to signal severe trouble ahead. The US is making intransigent noises, despite a Guardian report last Thursday that Mr. Bremer might give in and hold open elections. Were the US really to insist on sticking to its guns, the Bush administration might well face the prospect of hundreds of thousands of angry Iraqis demonstrating all this summer and into the fall, with the attendant danger of violence breaking out between them and US troops. The US public may not care very much about Iraq, but they certainly won’t want to see US troops shoot down innocent civilian protesters because the Bush administration would not allow free and fair elections.
On Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani asked Shiites not to demonstrate. He felt the point had already been made, and that it was time to let Kofi Annan and the United Nations deliberate. (This according to Edward Wong of the NYT.) Again, it is highly significant that, at this stage of the game, at least, he was able to turn off the spigot. But there is a danger that if he accustoms Iraqis to demonstrating in the tens of thousands, he will lose control of them if the US disappoints them.
Meanwhile, members of the Interim Governing Council who earlier had favored the US approach to carefully controlled elections, based on the Coalition-appointed provincial councils, defected to Sistani. Over the weekend Ahmad Chalabi told a skeptical audience at the arch-conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, that he now favored open elections and believed they could be held. And Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq with its 15,000-strong Badr Corps paramilitary, told Reuters the same thing this weekend: “It can be done, if we want it and make the effort. I believe they can be run.”
Az-Zaman reported that al-Hakim admitted, “Ideally elections would depend on the existence of a census, an electoral law, and a law governing parties . . . There are problems . . . But I believe that [elections] will express the opinion and the will of the people . . . will give a voice to all, and holding them is feasible.”
Sistani initially portrayed his initiative to press for open elections as a blow struck for indigenous Iraqi political figures against expatriate carpetbaggers, but now even the carpetbaggers are saying they think it is a good idea. Chalabi, Alawi and the others must have thought at first that it would be easier for them to ensure their election and power with the stage-managed American plan (under which the expatriate-dominated Interim Governing Council would choose a third of the electoral college in each province).
In the above-cited article, Wong maintains that Sistani only pressed for the open elections after being privately assured that they were feasible by UN figures behind the scenes. This tidbit of information accords with my own view, that Sistani’s appeal to the UN is not so much a request for help as a demand that it do the right thing. Kofi Annan will decide in the next couple of days whether and when to send an election feasibility commission to Iraq. He has a two-man team on the ground now.
Meanwhile, Rory McCarthy reports from Baghdad for the Guardian that a council of (fundamentalist) Sunni clerics has denounced the plan to hold elections, saying that Sunnis would boycott them if held under Coalition auspices. This rejectionist stance seems unlikely to be widely shared among Iraqi Sunnis, most of whom are nationalists rather than religious fundamentalists. If they did boycott the elections, they would just increase Shiite dominance. (It would be a mirror image of what happened in the recent elections in Bahrain, a Shiite-majority country where the Shiites boycotted the elections and allowed Sunni fundamentalists to dominate parliament.)