Voting against Occupation: Iraq’s Election Results

with Douglas Whitehead; In Ruckus [Vol. 8, Iss. 4, February 2005]

7,200 candidates, organized into 83 electoral blocs. 75 seperate attacks and 44 killings by the Iraqi Resistance. That’s a lot of democracy, eh? Invasions and corporate interest aside, what were the results of the Iraqi election?

On Sunday, January 30th 2005, Iraq held its first elections since the fall of Saddam Houssein in April 2003. The event was lauded as a major success in mainstream Western media. The election fell ten days after President George W. Bush’s inaugural speech in which he announced, using the familiar neo-conservative buzzwords, that America’s future depends on the success of democracy overseas, and called the election a historic event. Bush added, in light of election-day violence that claimed the lives of over 40 people, that some Iraqis may die while exercising their rights as citizens.

Three concurrent elections took place. The major election was for the 275 member Iraqi National Assembly, the legislative body responsible for drafting Iraq’s permanent constitution and the eventual election of Iraq’s president and prime minister. Elections were also held for local Governorate Councils, as well as for the Kurdish National Assembly in Kurdistan. About 58% of registered voters turned out in Iraq’s late January elections. However, the turnout was far from homogenous amongst Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. In particular, there was a very low voter turnout amongst Iraq’s Sunni Moslems, with most estimates as low as 9%, in contrast to turnouts of around 70% for other major groups. This is hardly surprising in view of Sunni clerics call for an election boycott in protest at U.S.-led assaults on Sunni-dominated cities. The high voter turnout among Shiites and Kurds is itself also not lacking in controversy. Voters in Shiite areas of Baghdad, for example, faced threats from government officials of withholding food rations unless they signed voter registration cards. Others complained that US troops in cities near Baghdad tried to coerce people into voting. Elsewhere, in Kurdish areas to the North, voters have complained of voting irregularities, such as early closures of polling stations, as well as the peculiar absence of certain Kurdish political parties on the ballots.

The Sunni-Kurdish Split

What are the implications for Iraq’s future government? The fair & balanced people at FOX-NEWS will probably tell you that Iraq consists of lots of Shiites, some Sunnis and some Kurds. We at Ruckus will tell you that, in fact, Iraq ethnically comprises about 75% Arab and 20% Kurdish peoples. (Minorities, such as Assyrians and Turkomans, make up the remaining 5%.) Religiously, Shiite and Sunni Moslems make up 65% and 32% respectively, with the remaining 3% made up largely peoples of Christian faith. The vast majority of Iraqi Kurds adhere to Sunni Islam. Iraq’s Sunni Moslems are strongly split along the Kurd-Arab ethnic division, however. In Iraq’s three predominantly Kurdish provinces in the north, the Kurdish nationalist parties – consisting mainly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – have formed a joint electoral bloc called the Kurdistan Alliance. They have also cunningly amalgamated all nine other Kurdish political factions: the Assyrian National Party, the Chaldean Democratic Union Party, the Democratic House of the Two Rivers Party, the Democratic National Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Socialist Party, the Kurdish Islamic Union, the Kurdistan Movement of the Peasants and Oppressed, the Kurdistan Toilers Party (Zahmatkeshan) and even the Kurdistan Communist Party.

The Alliance, in other words, campaigned for votes almost exclusively among Kurds, with the main objective of consolidating the region around Kirkuk into the Kurdish sphere and thereby limit the influence of a central Iraqi government. As a result, they stand to control 26% of Iraq’s new Assembly.

Winners and Losers

Iraqis voted largely for parties and leaders of their own ethnicity and religion, giving Shiite parties is massive advantage. Not all Shiites voted for non-secular parties, of course. Yet, in the predominantly Shiite precincts in the south, about four-fifths of votes went towards the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), giving rise to a final vote for the UIA of 48%.

The UIA’s main components are the sectarian Shiite fundamentalist parties: the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da’wa Party. Other incorporated bodies include the Badr Organisation, the Central Grouping Party, the Islamic Fayli Grouping in Iraq, Al-Fadilah Islamic Party, the First Democratic National Party, the Islamic Fayli Grouping in Iraq, Iraq’s Future Grouping, the Hezbollah Movement in Iraq, the Justice and Equality Grouping, the Iraqi National Congress, the Islamic al-Dawah Party-Iraq Organisation, the Islamic Master of the Martyrs Movement, the Islamic Task Organisation, and the Islamic Union for Iraqi Turkomans. The current Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s more secular U.S.-funded Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), heads a party known as the Iraqi List. The Iraqi List also represents the Council of Iraq’s Notables, the Iraqi Democrats Movement, the Democratic National Awakening Party, the Loyalty to Iraq Grouping and the Iraqi Independents Association. The Iraqi List won a dismal 14% of votes.

It is undeniably the Sunni Arabs who stand to lose most from the current state of Iraqi politics. Anticipating this, an influencial Sunni religious body known as the Association of Muslim Scholars had called for a boycott of the elections. The Association has taken a leading role in representing Sunni Iraqis in the absence of an organized Sunni political movement. The Sunni political vacuum results largely from the banning of former Baath Party officials from the elections. Predictably, then, things did not bode well for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni party in Iraq. It was lucky to get eight seats in the Assembly. Some other noteworthy parties and individuals that boycotted the elections were the National Front for the Unity of Iraq, Shaykh Muhammad Jawwad al-Khalisi (Secretary-General of the INCC), Dr. Wamid Jamal Nazmi, the Arab Nationalist Trend Movement, Imam al-Khalisi University, the Democratic Reform Party, the United National Front, the Iraqi Turkoman Front, the Iraqi Christian Democratic Party, the Islamic Bloc in Iraq, the Office of Ayatollah Ahmad al-Husayni al-Baghdadi, the Office of Ayatollah Qasim al-Tai, the Union of Iraqi Jurists, the Higher Committee for Human Rights, and the Iraqi Women’s Association.

Of the roughly 280,000 voters registered outside of the country (roughly 23% of all exiled Iraqis), about 93% voted in the election. The Iraq Out of Country Voting Program (http://www.iraqocv.org) estimates that about 36% of absentee votes went to the United Iraqi Alliance, about 29.6% to the Kurdish Alliance, with around 9% going to the Iraqi List, 4.41% to the Communist Peoples Union, and the rest scattered among the remaining 7,000 or so parties.

Analysis

Even though Interim Prime Minister Allawi has been effectively marginalized by his party’s low turnout, things may still turn out in favor of the United States. SCIRI, the Iranian-backed front-runner within UIA is currently headed by Interim Iraqi Finance Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi has been a vocal supporter of the privatization of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises, and assured Washington back in December 2004 that he would enact oil-laws that would be “promising to American investors.” The UIA also includes the Iraqi National Congress of one-time U.S. favorite Ahmed Chalabi, whose future in the new Iraqi government will hinge on the ability of the UIA to form a successful coalition.

Conclusions

Questions have to be raised about the election process. Iraqi voters were presented with lists of thousands of political parties to choose from, about which most had little to no knowledge. The country itself was put under lock-down, with extended curfews and closed borders, and no international observers were allowed into the country to monitor the election. What’s more, the election was held under the penumbra of a foreign occupation, a process declared illegitimate by the Hague Convention of 1907, in which no foreign power may make permanent changes to the government of an occupied territory. It is interesting, therefore, that when asked why they came out to vote, most Iraqis (Shiites and Kurds included) answered overwhelmingly that they were voting for the end of the occupation and a return of Iraqi national sovereignty. This hope seems unlikely to be answered. President Bush has given no timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and plans are already underway for the construction of four permanent U.S. military bases in the country.

Perhaps most ironic is the fact that, despite all the anti-occupation sentiments among Iraqi voters, the most successful parties thus far are led by people like Abdel Mahdi, a person who announced at a recent press conference that he would open up Iraqi national Oil to foreign investors, (effectively guaranteeing the US a monopoly on Iraqi oil) and Ayad Allawi, the CIA backed prime minister of the occupation government.

The new Iraqi government will have a difficult balancing act on its hands. On the one hand, the new government will have to deal with the United States, who is poised to remain in Iraq indefinitely. On the other hand, the government will face challenges on the domestic front. Sunni Arabs will be grossly underrepresented in the new government. Complicating issues further is the problem of Iran. The leading Shiite cleric, Iranian born Ayatollah al-Sistani,who at one point was at the center of the insurgency against American  troops, is one of SCIR’s biggest supporters.

A New York Times article from 1967 on the elections in South Vietnam began circulating over the Internet shortly after the election. It reported that amidst Vietcong terrorism, 83% of South Vietnam’s roughly 6 million voters voted in the election, which then president Johnson saw as an encouraging sign in the establishment of a legitimate democratic government in South Vietnam.

While it may not be appropriate to make such an analogy at this early a stage, the eerie similarity between the media coverage of Iraq and Vietnam could be a sign of bad things to come. The U.S. did not pull out Vietnam until 8 years later, leaving 50,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese civilians dead, as well as three countries in total ruin.

In light of what we learned (or at least, should have learned) from Vietnam, it’s difficult to see the elections as a success without a complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. If Vietnam tells us anything, it’s that many more Iraqis, perhaps millions, will “die pursuing their rights as citizens.”

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