Global Policy Forum

Voter Turnout Won't Be Enough to Legitimise Election


By Paul McGeough

Sydney Morning Herald
January 20, 2005

As the US tries to cook the books, Iraq may be heading for civil war, writes Paul McGeough.

There is something truly remarkable about the Iraqi human spirit. Cast around for a comparison of the numbers that might vote next Sunday and Afghanistan is a good choice. There, more than 10.5 million signed up last year in a security environment that made a mockery of the international observance of fragile polls when only a handful of monitors was brave enough to set foot in the country - but was not courageous enough to go beyond the capital.

Iraq does not have the same voter registration process because Saddam's old food-distribution register is being co-opted for this fraught experiment. It suggests that about 15million Iraqis are eligible to vote amid a savage insurgency that makes Afghanistan look like the proverbial Sunday school picnic - and with not a single international observer daring to cross the border from Jordan.

But we know this - more than 3 million Iraqis have ventured from their homes to go to electoral offices to correct data on Saddam's old food list and another 1.2 million people have made new registrations. Given the appalling security conditions on top of the seething anger at the failure of the US-led effort to rebuild this country, it would be remarkable if just these 4 million-plus turned out.

But despite car bombings such as the ones that killed 26 people on Wednesday - one of which was detonated near the Australian embassy - the targeted assassination or abduction of candidates and party officials, electoral and security workers, and the promise of more intimidation by bombing on polling day, the chances are that more will probably vote. But they are unlikely to vote in high enough numbers to legitimise the process.

True to form, the Americans and the puppet regime they have installed are cooking the books. Senior US officials and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi repeatedly insist that all is well because insecurity will restrict voting in "only four of Iraq's 18 provinces" Four out of 18 is a little over 20 per cent and in the circumstances might be acceptable. But the truth is very different. Anywhere between 40 and 50 per cent of the population live in those four provinces. It like insisting on the legitimacy of an Australian federal election when an army of thousands of gunmen is setting out to thwart the vote in NSW, Western Australia and Tasmania.

The Sunni turnout is expected to be as low as 10 to 15 per cent and because the US-crafted election calls for a national count, rather than one based on votes for local candidates, the Sunni vote will be swamped by the 60-plus per cent Shiite majority who are being instructed that voting is a religious duty.

And wouldn't you know it - the Americans now claim that the turnout doesn't count. In the same way that the White House claims the failure to find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in no way detracts from the decision to invade Iraq, the line at a background press briefing last week was this: "I would really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don't have any meaning, but to look on the outcome and to look at the government that will be the product of these elections."

Such is the level of fear that Iraqis still have not been told where they will be voting or who they will be voting for. The party names for 111 "slates" of candidates are known, but the names of 19,000 individual candidates for seats in the National Assembly and for provincial councils are being withheld to prevent them being targeted by the insurgency.

But coupled with a weak media and the absence of any genuine policy debate, the likely effect in a tribal and religious society is the outcome the Americans didn't want - many voters will resort to religious and tribal edicts, decrees and urgings on how they should vote, thereby locking in Iraq's sectarian divide and perhaps setting the scene for the full-blown civil war that some observers now fear is inevitable.

Over tea and sweets to celebrate the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha commemoration in Amman on Wednesday evening, Naseer Al Obeid, who is a professor of physics and a tribal sheik in the Sunni city of Ramadi, told me with seeming regret: "It's back to the old tribal system - this is what happens in the absence of central government. This election will do nothing - things will stay bad or get worse."

There is endless debate in the US and in the region about Washington's Iraq options - press on with or postpone the poll; stay the distance or exit as soon as it might be done half-decently afterwards. But it's too late for such hand-wringing. As a British official explained to Time magazine this week: "If we delay by two, three or six months, one month before [the new] election day we would be in exactly the same position we are now - but with an extra 1000 people dead and the violence more sophisticated." The Iraq truth, which should have been considered before it was too late, is that Washington has no options. The invasion of Iraq was the start of a sorry, organic mess that now must run its own brutal course.

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