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Analysis of Iraqi election results

Andy Newman

The results of the Iraqi elections need careful consideration. Certainly many commentators - myself included - have been wrong footed because the widely anticipated boycott was much smaller than expected. Although the total population of Iraq is over 25 million, the number of adults is just 13 million, of whom 8.45 million voted: a 65% turnout.

Nor was the boycott uniform within the so-called Sunni triangle. Voter turnout in Anbar province (which includes Fallujah) was just 2%, turnout in Salahuddin (Tikrit) was 29% and Diyala, another violent province, had 34% turnout. Baghdad, a mixed city, registered 45 per cent. It is therefore plausible that the turnout in any area was influenced by the scale of insurgency - which would both influence perceptions of the election's legitimacy and also make voting a more perilous activity.

Arguably the high turnout has exposed the limits of influence of Sunni groups, such as the Society of Muslim Ulama (Society of Doctors of Religion) led by Dr Harith Al- Dhari, who were urging boycott. As Faleh A Jabar an Iraqi sociologist in London writes: "The twin tactics of intimidation and boycott failed to prevent 8.5 of some 13-14 million eligible voters from going to the polls. Thirteen suicide bombers, one suffering from Downs Syndrome, were sent on their missions. A handful of poll centres were targets of mortar rounds and there were two reports of gunfire. And that, more or less, was that. Voters had expected worse. Early birds showed up before 9.00am to avoid attacks. The more audacious ventured out at what many suspected would be the most hazardous time. The bulk waited. Then, by midday, voters rightly guessed Salafi attackers [supporters of al Zarqawi] had deployed all they had. The masses poured into voting stations, amazing themselves and the world. Violent opposition groups had singularly failed to grasp the depth of pro-election sentiments. More than two hundred political entities registered. Tens of thousands stood as candidates. Volunteers flooded to help the Independent Commission for Elections in Iraq, manning 600 registry offices and 9,000 voting stations nationwide in the face of threats, car bombs and assassinations. Their presence was a questioning of the legitimacy of such tactics. The majority of Iraqis viewed elections as means of restoring sovereignty."

This last point about voting as a strategy towards restoring national sovereignty is an important observation. Much press coverage in the West has spun the elections as a triumph for Bush and Blair, and a vindication of the invasion. Yet the party most strongly associated with the US occupation, the Iraqi list of Iyad Allawi received just 1.16 million votes (13.9 per cent), despite a very well funded campaign, emphasizing reconstruction and the need to restore security. Even more significantly the Shia list also known as the Unified Iraqi Alliance (UIA) won 4.75 million votes (48.7%). The largest components of this coalition are the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Islamic Dawa party. Both of these parties are sharply critical of the US occupation, and the Dawa party has in the past strongly criticized the deployment of the Iraqi National Guard against Iraqi insurgents. The Shia list campaigned on the policy of asking the Americans to set a timetable for withdrawal. Although there was a call for the elections to be boycotted by Moqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the Shia Mehdi army who fought the Americans last year, his supporters also contested the elections as the Independent Nationalist Cadres and Elites, (Kawadir wa Nukhab) and won 65,000 votes.

Although it is only speculation the long delay in declaring the results, and the almost immediate replacement of the US Viceroy in Iraq, John Negroponte, may suggest that the results have created some headaches in Washington. After all the Americans had not wanted elections in the first place, The Coalition Provisional Authority  (CPA) under Paul Bremer, originally wanted a 3-5 year period before elections in which to restructure Iraq along neo-liberal lines.

Before the elections took place I remarked that there may well be elements of farce because there were 83 electoral coalition lists and 47 parties participating, but in most cases no way of campaigning or explaining what the parties stood for, especially as only 56% of men and 24% of women are literate: all this quite aside from the difficulties raised by the insurgency. Indeed, 90% of the parties received less than the threshold of just 30,000 votes across the whole country required to win a seat.

The Peoples' Unity List of the Iraqi Communist Party fared much worse than anticipated, securing just 69,000 votes, and winning two seats. To their credit they admitted in their newspaper that the result was bad - and observed that their potential supporters voted along religious or ethnic lines -- the Kurds voted for the Kurdish list and the Shia for the United Iraqi Alliance. This is one of the most important aspects of these results, the fracturing of the electorate according to ethnicity or faith. The parties who stood on ideological platforms, such as the broadly liberal Independent Iraqis for Democracy (led by the high profile figure, Adnan Pachachi) got just 23,000 votes; and the Constitutional Monarchists won just 13,000 votes. In contrast the Kurdish list - appealing directly for votes on ethnic lines - secured 2.17 million votes (26.2%), whereas only between 15% and 20% of the population are Kurdish: the anomaly being explained by the higher turnout in Kurdish areas.

As no party has an overall majority there will be a period of horse-trading before a government emerges from the National Assembly. However given the large numbers who participated in the election, and the diversity of views expressed, it would be a mistake to argue that this government has no moral or political legitimacy. How the government uses its mandate will become a key political battleground.

So far Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - who stands behind the Shia list coalition - has played a very clever game of distancing himself from the American occupation without embracing military opposition to it. There is an internal dynamic behind military action that polarizes political options. Although Al-Sistani is not socially progressive, he has undoubtedly shown great political skill in so far avoiding this simple binary polarization.

Should a government be formed that plays the same subtle game then this could act as a genuine constraint on American ambitions - not least upon any American military intentions towards Iran. A key test for the new government will be whether it rescinds or prevents the implementation of the notorious Order 81 introduced by the CPA that prevents Iraqi farmers retaining seed-grain for replanting the following year in an attempt to force them to buy seed from American agri-business.

On the other hand any government that emerges may become co-opted into collusion with the occupation forces in an attempt to gain sufficient stability in the insurgent provinces to allow the constitutional referendum to take place later this year. It is too early to see the likely outcomes. However what is inevitable is that the insurgency will continue.

What the elections have shown is that the military struggle between the Americans and the insurgents is not the only process going on in Iraq. That military struggle cannot be ignored, but there is another overlapping and sometimes contradictory strategy of very many Iraqis participating in whatever political and civil processes are open to them.


February 2005


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