In a region that is crying out for political change, two key countries are beginning 2005 with elections. Palestinians elected a new president on January 9, while Iraqis are due to elect a National Assembly on January 30 (after Crescent goes to press).
In the Palestinian autonomy area, elections were held to choose a successor to the late President Yasser Arafat in the middle of two disagreements. One is about the death of Arafat himself: did he die because of sickness and senility or was he murdered? The other is about Mahmood Abbas (Abu Mazin), who was elected as a successor of Arafat. In Iraq, general elections were called to elect an Iraqi national assembly (parliament) and to bestow legitimacy on the political regime that has been imposed by the occupation authorities. These elections were called despite a wide range of calls for a boycott.
In each case the election was held under difficult circumstances whose complexity surpasses the Palestinian disagreement regarding Arafat’s death and the Iraqi boycott calls. This complexity provokes concerns that the elections could lead to the eruption of civil wars in both Iraq and Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) had lost its control of most of the Palestinian Autonomy area since the early months of the al-Aqsa Intifada (uprising). Actually, the PA’s control of this area was never complete, even before the intifada began in September 2000. Although the Israelis declared that they would withdraw from the cities and townships of the Ghazzah Strip and the West Bank during the election period, no one has any illusions that the presidential elections and the subsequent legislative and municipal elections can be free of Israeli interference. The occupation authorities will always influence the elections’ outcomes.
In addition to their interference in the procedural aspects of the elections, the occupation authorities are not expected to allow any candidate opposing the Oslo accords with Israel to have adequate freedom of movement to campaign effectively, let alone win. But the most critical matter is this wide-range disagreement among the various Palestinian factions about the future of the national Palestinian movement. Mahmood Abbas, the newly elected PA president, unilaterally enforces a policy of halting military activities against the occupation by various Palestinian resistance forces, that may lead to strife between Palestinians.
In Iraq, despite the installation of an interim president, prime minister and cabinet, the main and dominant political and military power remains the occupation, whose forces exceed 170,000 troops of what is supposed to be the most formidable war machine in the world. The occupation authorities have installed interim Iraqi rulers, and are protecting them and providing them with a base of support, in order to share the burden of governance with those who are willing to turn against their own people.
But Iraq’s security situation has become an American matter, and Iraq’s wealth and economy are under the control of American officials. These are also directly involved in the Iraqi elections, as they have devised the election laws, placed their allies in influential posts, and designed a divisive and sectarian framework that has turned parts of Iraq’s society against each other. More importantly, the political balance of power in Iraq is tilted in favor of the occupiers.
All the participants in the elections, as well as the election administrators and sponsors, are working on the basis of this balance of power and its underlying assumptions. The only forces that are qualified to challenge and change this set-up are the resistance forces or the forces that opposed the call for elections under occupation. These are not parties in the election process.
After holding elections in Iraq, the incoming national assembly, cabinet and constitution commission will be dominated by the occupation-allied forces that are ready to surrender Iraq’s independence and autonomy. Thus, because the widely expected boycott of the elections by various political forces, sectors of Iraqi society and geographical regions, the elections will result in an Iraqi state that will certainly be more violent and that might well take the country towards civil war.
In general, elections are not capable of bringing about fundamental change in the socio-political reality of any country. In fact, elections really only work within largely stable situations. In that case, the views of various socio-political forces vary about means and small issues but not about grand issues that might bring about radical shifts. For instance, the differences between the center left and conservatives in Western politics address details of government and means of maintaining national interests, welfare and social stability; but they do not touch the foundations of state and order. Even in foreign policy, it is an illusion that there are any substantial differences among major political forces in Western democracies about national interests and ends. They differ only with regard to the best means of maintaining interests and realizing ends.
Communist regimes in Eastern Europe did not collapse because of elections but because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the protector of the Socialist bloc, and popular uprisings. When a consensus was nearly formed to establish liberal democracies in the eastern European countries, the communist parties reshaped their structures and discourses to participate in the new consensus.
Since violence erupted in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, the violence-affected regions have had several local and parliamentarian elections. But none of them managed to put an end to the violence or to reach a resolution of the main issues of the conflict. Northern Ireland had to wait several decades before the various parties embarked on a comprehensive peace accord that instituted stability and facilitated a political process and meaningful elections.
Regardless of the complexity of the legitimacy question, neither the Palestinian elections nor the Iraqi elections can result in a new Palestinian or Iraqi reality. The Palestinian elections, which Mahmood Abbas won, will never settle the internal disagreements about the Oslo accord, Israel’s occupation or the struggle for Palestine. Even the Palestinian faction that seeks a negotiation-based settlement for the conflict, and heard from Washington so much about reforming and democratizing the PA as a condition to resume the peace process, will soon find out that a final-status settlement that supports what is left of the Palestinian national agenda is unattainable in the current system and balance of power.
Of course Yasser Arafat was a supposedly elected president and enjoyed strong popular support, even by Western democratic standards. However, the corruption of the PA’s practices was ignored for many years as the PA was used for the role Israel required it to play: guarding Israeli security and opening the Arab and Muslim world for ‘normalization’ with Israel. The Israeli plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Ghazzah Strip was not the outcome of any democratic reform in the PA but was brought about by the military and security problems that Ghazzah caused the occupying power.
Nor are the Iraqi elections expected to bring about political stability in Iraq. Elections will never force the boycotters to recognize the legitimacy of a political regime established by an occupation force, nor persuade the resistance to give up fighting the occupiers and their protégés. Winning elections does not guarrantee a people’s recognition of their legitimacy; rather, it promotes more divisiveness between the pro- and anti-occupation sectors of a society.
But if the Iraqi forces in the new parliament suppose that elections give them a mandate to approve security pacts with the occupiers that prolong occupation, or to draft a permanent constitution that institutes the country’s fragmentation and privileges some citizens over others, the political divisiveness of the country will get worse, and civil strife will engulf more people and groups. The world will have to wait years or decades before the process of re-establishing stability in Iraq can be completed.
However, civil war is fortunately not inevitable in either Iraq or Palestine. Rather, both countries are, to a large extent, out of this peril. Mahmood Abbas and the PA leadership realise that Arafat’s rejection of concessions in the matters of Jerusalem, refugees’ right of return, and sovereignty in the West Bank and the Ghazzah Strip has resulted in a political ceiling on his successor: no Palestinian leader will ever attain the popular support that Arafat had if he gives up what Arafat refused to give up.
However, it is also difficult to imagine Israel being willing to reach, with the new Palestinian leadership, a settlement that takes Palestinian aspirations into consideration. Sharon’s hope is that his plan to withdraw from Ghazzah will relieve the international pressure on Israel and the interest of the international community in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The battle for the West Bank may take two to three decades after the withdrawal from Ghazzah; the conflict may continue for another 25 years before reaching a decisive outcome. Considering these facts, either already recognized or soon to be recognized by various Palestinian forces, there is no need for strife between Palestinians because of policies that will never be realised.
The violence and dissent in Iraq are not expected to turn into open civil war. No doubt the resistance to occupation by certain sectors of Iraqi society is more widespread and visible than others’. However, the success of the anti-occupation Institutional National Congress in providing a platform for influential Sunni and Shi’i forces and figures and al-Sadr’s association with the resistance, boycotting the elections, have together removed much of the friction between the Sunnis and Shi’is.
As for the Kurdish question in Iraq, it was never an issue of civil strife; it was rather a conflict between Kurdish political forces and the Iraqi state. Although no one is sure of the extent of the two major Kurdish parties’ popularity, the chance that these parties will set off internal strife is remote. The movements and fortunes of the Kurdish parties were always tied to the regional and international balance of power. These parties realize that the battle against the Arab majority of Iraq is, in any circumstances, a lost battle.
In the long term, the escalating violence in Iraq will mainly be violence between the occupation forces and an Iraqi resistance. There will be attempts to ignite civil war, especially by the pro-occupation forces that have lost their credibility and want to seek refuge in sectarian distractions and irrelevancies. But such attempts face barriers of national sentiment, blood and kinship, and a history that had united Iraqis for centuries.
As the noise of the election dies, people will wake up to encounter the fact that cannot be overlooked: that elections are very ordinary affairs and that nothing will change soon because of them.