Elections are supposed to be the cornerstone of democracy, a viewpoint that suggests that 2005 may well prove to be the year in which the US’s claims to be promoting democratization in the Middle East are vindicated. The year opened, on January 9, with elections for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, and the rest of the month has been dominated with talk of the elections due to be held in Iraq on January 30 (after Crescent goes to press). Later in the year, polls of various kinds are also due to take place in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Oman and Yemen. In Egypt, the most populous and influential Arab country, presidential and parliamentary polls are scheduled for September and October respectively.
The reality is very different, of course. In Iraq, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the elections will prove only that the value of political processes needs to be assessed in the context of the circumstances and institutional arrangements in which they take place. Across the Middle East, people are accustomed to elections serving only to legitimise the continued domination of established political elites. US president George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair may boast of establishing the first free and fair elections in Iraq’s history, and a model for the future democratization of the rest of the Middle East in the twenty-first century, but the reality is that the only difference between these elections and others in the Arab world is that the elites hoping to benefit from these ones are actually American, rather than simply being pro-American.
It would be foolish, of course, to try to predict the result of the polls, which will have taken place by the time this magazine reaches most readers. Over 100 lists of candidates have been registered to compete for the 275 seats in the National Assembly; this will then select a president and two vice-presidents, who in turn will appoint a prime minister and nominate a cabinet. The four major lists are the United Iraqi Alliance (al-I’telaf al-Iraqi al-Muwahad) , led by Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also including a number of other Shi’i groups, the current Iraqi finance minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (the list’s candidate to be prime minister), former US ally Ahmed Chalabi, and assorted others, including Sunnis and Kurds, and enjoying the tacit endorsement of Ayatullah Sistani; the National Accord List (al-Wifaq al-Watani) headed by Iraqi interim leader Ayyad Allawi, which has campaigned with the full support of the US and existing Iraqi state institutions; the Kurdistan Alliance List, headed by Jalal Talebani and Massoud Barzani; and the Independent Democrats Coalition, led by veteran Iraqi diplomat Adnan Pachachi and including several respected figures who are not aligned with particular political blocs.
What can be said with certainty, however, is that –assuming that the polls take place as scheduled – the results will be largely shaped by the vote ofIraq’s Shi’i majority, who make up over 60 percent of the population but have traditionally been marginalised in political terms. The Kurdish vote is likely to go to the Kurdistan Alliance, while Iraqi Sunnis are unlikely to vote in any numbers. The Association of Muslim Scholars, headed by Harith al-Dhari, and the leading Sunni political movement in the country, has boycotted the elections after its demands for a postponement of the polls was refused, while Sunni resistance groups are waging a violent war against the elections that is likely to peak on polling day. As usual, voter turnout will be seen as a key indicator of the elections’ success. Although the occupation authorities and the Iraqi government have tried to portray Iraqi Shi’as as being keen to exercise their right to vote, a number of Shi’i leaders and groups, including the still influential Muqtada al-Sadr, have refused to endorse the process and some reports have spoken of apathy toward the elections in key areas such as Sadr City in Baghdad.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, one of the attractions of the process for the US authorities that continue to pull the strings behind the Allawi government is that such processes are inherently divisive, in a society already split along major fault-lines. In addition to the existing differences between Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds, and within the various communities, the new political situation in Iraq has created divisions between those who favour working through the political institutions and processes established by the US, and those who oppose it. These divisions do not coincide with communal lines, but have failed to cut across them; rather the effect has been the further splintering of Iraqi society. At the same time, the US and its allies have deliberately raised sectarian, communal and nationalist concerns – particularly anti-Iranian ones – to further polarise the Iraqi community. The weakening of Iraqi resistance to the US occupation caused by these divisions has already been seen in the case of the military resistance, where the US has succeeded in splintering the Sunni and Shi’i wings of the resistance and dealing with them separately. Whatever happens in the elections – whether the vote is split, creating a divided National Assembly, or whether one party does well, raising fears of marginalising among other sectors of society – the results are bound to create further fault-lines for those manipulating the Iraqi political situation to exploit.
The point that the elections are taking place under foreign military occupation, and in such an appaling security conditions that even government officials admit that voting will be difficult in four of Iraq’s 18 provinces, whose people make up nearly half the country’s population, and cannot possibly be “free and fair” has been well established. But that is not the only reason to be wary of the process and its results. It should not be forgotten that the whole political process is being conducted along lines laid out by Paul Bremer, the former US proconsul in Iraq, and that the political institutions established after the elections will co-exist with unelected institutions established by the US to “advise” on government policy in all key areas. While the US is transferring a degree of power to Iraqis, it is also making very sure that its own interests are well protected.
It is also using its international institutional power to ensure that international bodies insist that the Iraqi government – supposedly independent and sovereign – accepts the US’s prescriptions. Many of these pressures are largely unnoticed or, when they are actually publicised, are presented as ways of helping Iraq rather than controlling it. An example is the plan for the restructuring of Iraq’s massive international debt, unveiled by the Paris Club, the group of industrialised western countries, on November 21, 2004. Although this was portrayed as an altrustic plan to write off 80 percent of Iraq’s debt over three years, once the new Iraqi government accepts the offer, it is in fact contingent on Iraq adhering strictly to an austerity programme designed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which will cause immense suffering to the Iraqi people and effectively deliver Iraqi economic policy into western hands. Early drafts of the austerity program include free-market reforms that will involve the privatization of state-owned industries and the abolition of the food-aid program that provides all Iraqi families with a regular basket of food – in many cases, the only food they have access to. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is also demanding similar measures as a condition for accepting Iraq as a member, while the US pushes the Iraqi government to accept those terms and join the body.
The imperialist nature of the US’s invasion of Iraq – and much of the rest of its foreign policy – is widely recognised by people willing to see it. History teaches us two things about imperial administrations. The first is that they aim to minimise the cost of their control, establishing institutions by which the colonised people look after their own affairs as far as is possible without the interests of the imperialist power being threatened. The second is that a class emerges from the colonised peoples that – often with the best of intentions – chooses to work with the imperialist powers rather than oppose them, and that this class effectively become agents of the imperial power in the colonised society. The ideal for the imperial powers is to be able to end their formal involvement in a colony’s affairs while being assured that their interests will continue to be maintained by the native agents they leave behind. It is in this context that the political processes now unfolding in Iraq need to be understood.