Tuesday, October 25, 2005

And our survey said...

Yes apparently.

I have to say that tonight's BBC 6 O'Clock News report on the result of the referendum seemed curiously optimistic. The acceptance of the constitution was presented as a significant positive step and there was almost no attempt to qualify that judgement. That's peculiar in itself but there was also not one word of coverage of the reaction of Sunni politicians to the "yes" vote. It is well known that the insurgency is predominantly being waged by Sunnis. If there is to be peace in Iraq, it is vital that the Sunnis accept the result.* As such, this omission appears totally inexplicable (I can't explain it anyway).

The BBC Online article linked above seems to have done a much better job of reporting the situation. The reaction of Sunni politicians is not good.
Sunni figures talked of widespread fraud after hearing the final results. Saleh al-Mutlaq, part of a Sunni Arab team that negotiated the constitution, called the referendum a "farce" and accused government forces of stealing ballot boxes to reduce the size of the "No" vote.
The UN has said that it is confident of the result so these claims might well be unfounded. Whether they are or not, they undoubtedly represent a serious problem for the coalition strategy.

The official line is that the constitution was accepted by an overwhelming majority of Iraqis. This is basically true (78% voted yes and only 21% voted no) but like all the best spin, it is only part of the story. Now that we have the full results, it's clear that the referendum actually came pretty close to rejecting the constitution. This would have happened if three provinces had achieved a 67% "no" vote. In the end, two provinces voted no by large margins and a third, Nineveh, voted no by a small one. The "no" vote in Nineveh was 55%, 12% short of the margin required. As some people will already know, Nineveh is the province thought most likely to have suffered "electoral irregularities" during the referendum. Using the figures from that post, I estimate very approximately that another 100,000 "no" votes (or 100,000 less "yes" votes) in Nineveh would have delivered a rejection of the constitution. So, although the constitution was supported by the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, the final result of the referendum is far from overwhelming.

I should be clear though, I'm not saying that I think the referendum was fixed. I can't claim to have nearly enough information to be able to make a proper judgement on that. What I am saying is that the result was close in the crucial and controversial Ninehev province. As such, accusations that the vote was fraudulent should not be dismissed out of hand. I'm afraid that's just what the US and UK government's, along with the majority Shias and the Kurds, are about to do. The "Sunni Sour Grape" labels are due to be delivered any day now. I believe this is probably the most dangerous situation Iraq has faced since the invasion. If the Sunnis do not accept the result and if their objections are swept aside, they could withdraw from the political process altogether. If that happened, it would almost certainly be disasterous for the stability of the country. Iraq is currently on a very precarious knife edge and the next few weeks are going to be absolutely vital. One slip and civil war will probably become inevitable.

It might not come to that and I hope it doesn't. The Sunnis could accept the vote and put their efforts into campaigning for the elections in December. This might start to have some effect on the strength of the insurgency. That would be the best possible outcome and one I'm sure we would all welcome wholeheartedly. If recent history is anything to go by though, I'm afraid it won't happen that way.

* For convenience (ie. laziness) I tend to generalise about various groups without mentioning that I'm doing it. I've done it quite a lot in this post. The idea of that the "Sunnis" of Iraq, or any other group for that matter, all universally subscribe to one particular view of a situation is obviously simplistic. In reality, it might be better to say the "views of the majority of Sunnis" or something similar but it always seem to find that it makes writing slightly irritating. Perhaps I'm just being pedantic but I thought I should mention that I'm aware that I do this. I wonder if I could just ask people to read majority view or what have you when appropriate from here on in? That'd be ideal.

** This week, I shall be mostly trying to spot people who normally detest everything about the UN but who unquestioningly accept this UN judgement and use it in argument to defend their own position. 10 points if you spot one before do. The sad truth is that we know that UN officials have been known to take the odd bribe here and there (and specifically with regard to Iraq actually). Not that I'm saying it happened in this case, just that it wouldn't be without precedent if it had.

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