Do we support the planned Iraqi elections?

We start from a position of principle. We support elections as one component of democratization. But not every election is a legitimate instrument of democracy. An election cannot be legitimate when it is conducted under foreign military occupation; when the country is nominally ruled by, and the election will be officially run by, a puppet government put and kept in place by the occupying army and the election will be under the ultimate control of the occupying army; when war is raging extensively enough to prevent participation by much of the population; and when the election is designed to choose a new assembly responsible for drafting a constitution and selecting a government that will continue to function under the conditions of military occupation. (We can see a dangerous precedent in Afghanistan where U.S. support ensured the election of Hamid Karzai.) As currently planned, the January 30th elections in Iraq are designed to provide a veneer of credibility and legitimacy to the continuation of U.S. control of Iraq, through election of a U.S.-friendly government that will welcome the U.S. military bases in Iraq, and through the drafting of a U.S.-oriented constitution.

How are the planned Iraqi elections different from other elections held under occupation?

The United Nations has claimed that the precedent for “legitimate” elections held under military occupation is the 1999 UN-run election in East Timor. But there are significant differences. Most importantly, UN resolutions had, since 1976, officially deemed the Indonesian occupation illegal and called on Indonesia to withdraw. The 1999 vote was not to select a puppet “government” to administer East Timor under continuing Indonesian occupation but was a direct referendum on whether or not to end the occupation – a choice never offered to Iraqis. Additionally, the Indonesian military was pressured sufficiently so there was little military violence during the referendum itself. (The Indonesian military’s razing of much of Dili came after the election, not before or during.) And the balloting was run directly by the United Nations, with thousands of UN election workers and a wide array of international monitors.

The Iraqi election will also be qualitatively different than the Palestinian election planned for January 9th. That election will face severe challenges of legitimacy, but there is some hope that it may succeed in reinvigorating Palestinian national life. While that poll will also take place under conditions of military occupation, the election will be run completely by the Palestinians themselves. However flawed the limited institutions of Palestinian democracy that emerged over the last decade, there is a functioning civil society and parliamentary structure and a national process not directly controlled by the occupying forces. The level of occupation violence in Palestine is very high, but generally much lower than the full-scale warfare characterizing much of Iraq. Legitimacy will be based, among other things, on whether Israel allows Jerusalemites to participate in the vote, and whether international demands on Israel (not primarily from the U.S.) will be sufficient to force Tel Aviv to shut down its hundreds of checkpoints, pull its troops back from population centers, and open all roads in the occupied territories for campaigning as well as the actual vote.

What other kind of election could be held in Iraq?

One alternative would be to arrange the kind of referendum the UN ran in East Timor, in which Iraqis would vote on whether or not to end the occupation and for the foreign troops to be withdrawn. A possible three-choice ballot, for instance, might include the options of voting to maintain foreign troops as they are today; voting to set a date certain for the future withdrawal of foreign troops; or voting for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. No consideration was ever given to providing Iraqis with this kind of referendum, and there have been no serious recent efforts to find out the opinion of the Iraqi population regarding the maintaining of the U.S. occupation.

What is likely to happen if the Iraqi elections are held as currently planned?

There is little doubt that the U.S. is trying to reduce the resistance as much as possible in anticipation of the January 30th election plan. It seems likely this escalation will take place in smaller scale operations than either the April or November offensives in Fallujah. And in response, resistance military attacks, more on Iraqis viewed as collaborating with the occupation forces than on U.S. troops directly, are already increasing. So despite those U.S. efforts, or perhaps because of them, it is likely that many parts of the country, particularly though not solely in regions where Iraqi Sunnis are dominant, will remain too violent for people to go to the polls in large numbers.

Powerful U.S. political operations are also underway in Iraq aimed at influencing the outcome of the elections. Whatever money may be entering Iraq from Iran or other regional centers, it is almost certain that (despite official Washington denials) U.S. financial and political influence-buying is far more extensive. Both the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have major campaigns underway to help “train” and provide “capacity building” to various Iraqi parties – ostensibly open to all parties, recruiting favors those deemed open to maintaining close U.S. ties, and those viewed as likely to move Iraq’s economy towards privatization and globalization. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided about $80 million to these and other organizations, many of them working under the auspices of the Cold War-era National Endowment for Democracy, to “assist” Iraqi parties in the run-up to the elections. The result will almost certainly be the election of many parties, slates and candidates at least open to, if not strongly committed, to a U.S.-centered political, military and economic trajectory.

Who will participate in the election?

If the election takes place, under almost any scenario the most votes will go to the Shi’ite -dominated alliance headed by supporters of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Aside from those Iraqis who may not be able to vote because of high levels of occupation-linked violence, boycotts of the vote have been threatened or at least hinted at by a wide array of Iraqi forces. They include most of the Sunni-dominated parties, secular parties including some with significant Shi’ite participation, a few leading Shi’ite politicians, and the main Kurdish parties. Each have different reasons for staying out of the vote. The Sunni-defined parties are concerned that escalating violence in regions where they are demographically powerful will prevent their supporters from going to the polls in large numbers. A few Shi’ite politicians have expressed concern that elections held under these flawed conditions will not be deemed legitimate in the international arena, and so they are calling for the vote to be delayed. Secular parties and electoral alliances have major concerns about holding elections under conditions of occupation and about the undemocratic results of holding elections with major population sectors unable or unwilling to participate. Kurdish opposition is not rooted in concerns about voter access; the Kurdish-dominated north is probably the area of the country least directly damaged by the occupation and war. Although actual public opinion in the Kurdish areas is unknown and many Kurds may well distrust the two powerful Kurdish parties, those parties still may well command a higher level of support from the Kurdish population than is true in other sectors of the country. It may be that the main Kurdish parties are calling for delaying the vote in order to have more time to further consolidate their autonomous governing structures and powerful military forces (the U.S. military brought Kurdish pesh merga troops down from northern Iraq to participate in the Pentagon’s Fallujah offensive). The Kurds have been concerned that their current U.S.-sanctioned autonomy might be undermined if a future national government drafts a constitution that does not include the same guarantees as the prevailing U.S.-sponsored “transitional administrative law.”

Has Iraq always been so divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites?

It should be noted that modern Iraq has a long history of secularism and relatively cordial relations between the main Arab religious division (the Kurds have been discriminated against, often violently, for decades) of Shi’ite and Sunni. But the cumulative effects of sanctions-driven shredding of the social contract, and the occupation-caused crisis of violence and impoverishment, appear to be causing many Iraqis to claim their religious affiliation as a replacement for national identity. For many, the appeal of the religious- and sectarian-based parties lies less in the specifics of their sometimes extreme theology, and more in their ability to provide at least a modicum of schooling, health care, employment, and social welfare that the U.S. occupation has so often promised yet consistently failed to provide. (Similar to the appeal of Hamas in the poverty-wracked Gaza Strip.) So the elections, if held, may in fact show a higher proportion of popular support for the various religious-based parties in terms of who shows up to vote and who stays home.

(Note: for a very good short piece on the Iraqi resistance see “Why Elections Won’t Quell Iraq Resistance” by Molly Bingham in the Boston Globe, December 15, 2004.)

What will the results likely look like?

With the victory of al-Sistani’s political alliance, there will likely be greater influence of Shi’ite clerics (although few clerics are themselves running for office), rather than the secular U.S.-backed Iraqis, many of them Shi’ite and largely former exiles, who dominate the current “government” in Iraq. It is ironic, of course, that it is precisely U.S. pressure for early elections under occupation that is causing greater unease among Sunni sectors, and in all probability an even stronger Shi’ite domination of the results than otherwise – meaning Washington itself is setting the stage for greater Iranian influence inside Iraq. Other regional consequences may include the reduction of Saudi and/or Jordanian influence. Overall, however, the U.S. will remain the dominant power in the country as long as its military occupation remains, and its political and especially economic influence will remain even beyond the lifespan of the direct military deployment (see section above on NDI and IRI).

Will an “elected” Iraqi assembly or government demand an end to the occupation?

It is virtually certain that a legitimate, truly national election in Iraq would call for an end to foreign occupation. But this process is not going to be legitimate or truly national. And it is not at all clear that even a Sistani-controlled assembly would, despite pre-election claims, demand that the U.S. end the occupation and that occupation troops be withdrawn. Given the Bush administration’s investment in this election, Washington will have little choice but to endorse the assembly voted in, regardless of its political composition. It is certainly possible that the victors of this flawed process may in fact call for an immediate end to the occupation. But it is probably more likely that, regardless of their earlier orientation, the winners may conclude that their own potential for power and influence within this U.S.-controlled reality is best served by agreeing to work with, rather than challenge, the U.S. occupation.

Certainly any specific call by any Iraqi forces to end the U.S. occupation must be supported. But even if an “elected” Iraqi assembly chosen in an illegitimate election under conditions of occupation, refuses to call for foreign troops to depart, or worse, even welcomes their presence, that does not obligate the international peace movement to follow suit. To the contrary, our obligation, rooted in international law and our own commitment to internationalism and to challenging our own government’s violations of international law, requires us to maintain the clarity of our demand for an immediate end to the occupation and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Our work continues to demand a consistent focus on ending the war and bringing the troops home now.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.