Thursday, December 15, 2005

Behind the Makeup

Today's election in Iraq appears to have passed off relatively peacefully. This will generate much enthusiasm on the historic nature of these elections in some quarters. There will be a tendancy to assume that the elections have somehow magically cured all the outstanding problems in Iraq and a related tendency to be over-optimistic about what's likely to happen next.* Many people will accept this interpretation of the situation uncritically, perhaps because they so desperately want to believe it. Unfortunately, this view is a glossy airbrushed photo on the cover of a celebrity magazine; it looks pretty but it has little foundation in reality.

Having said that, it would be churlish not to recognise that there is an historic aspect to today's election in Iraq. The courage and determination of the Iraqi people cannot be dismissed as an irrelevance. Huge numbers of Iraqis have taken part in these elections in an attempt to shape the future of their country through the democratic process. This is a remarkable achievement.

The results of the elections are not expected to be declared until the end of December at the earliest and this is likely to be followed by a period of negotiation between the various parties before a new government can be formed. After the January elections, this process took around three months to complete so it may be some considerable while before we learn the exact shape of the next government of Iraq. When the announcemnet comes, it's highly unlikely to be the instant panacea we'd all like it to be.

There are some conclusions which can reasonably be drawn even at this early stage. Iraqis have voted in huge numbers, that much is certain. A great deal has been made of the fact that Sunnis have participated in these elections (they mostly boycotted the January ones). Sunnis are expected to have voted for the Iraqi Accord Front in large numbers**.
A statement by the front stressed the importance of ending the "occupation", boosting Iraq's national identity and setting up a committee to review the new constitution. It wants to repeal laws relating to de-Baathification and the dissolution of Iraq's armed forces. [my emphasis]
Some of these aims are not at all compatible with the aims of the other main parties. In particular, it seems certain that the review of the constitution is going to be the make or break issue for the new parliament.

The party widely expected to be the largest when the results are declared is the United Iraqi Alliance. The UIA is dominated by religious Shiites.
The alliance's platform calls for national unity, the enforcement of the new constitution, the end of the US-led coalition's presence, the de-politicisation of government institutions, and the formation of regional governments.
I've emphasised the constitution because it's the most important issue but there are other seemingly intractable problems here too. It's very hard to see how the "de-politicisation of government institutions" can be reconciled with "the repeal of laws relating to de-Baathification". Chalk and cheese, as they say. And the UIA want to create regional governments while the IAF are far more concerned with boosting national identity, ie maintaining a strong central government. (In fact, the main policy they genuinely agree on is the need for an end to the coalition presence in Iraq, which is, in itself, an obvious cause for concern.) It could reasonably be argued that stability in Iraq now depends to a large extent on whether these two groups are able to reach some sort of compromise on these disagreements. A slight simplification perhaps, but this is the central issue. This is not a recipe for optimism in my opinion.

There are other issues. Allawi's Iraqi National List might yet be a moderate secular influence on the parliament despite repeated allegations of corruption during his time as interim prime minister. The Kurdish parties meanwhile, will continue to be mostly concerned with maintaining and expanding their independence from Baghdad. Control of the city of Kirkuk (and the nearby oilfields) is likely to remain a major source of contention.

The real test then, is not the elections themselves, impressive as they undoubtedly looked on your TV screen. The real test will be whether the newly elected political groups, with their openly stated and directly conflicting visions of Iraq's future, will be able to successfully work together. Will they be able to find the solutions to the many outstanding issues which currently fuel the insurgency and instability in Iraq? It seems an almost impossible task but perhaps, just perhaps, it can be done. For the sake of the people of Iraq, I hope it can.

One thing is certain though; yet another premature declaration of victory is the last thing anyone needs right now.***

* This is hardly an unprecedented phenomenon:
Cheney: Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators...
Russert: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?
Cheney: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House... The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
- Vice President Cheney interviewed by Tim Russert for NBC's "Meet the Press", 16th March 2003

You'd think they'd have learned to be a just a little more cautious about woolly-headed optimism. Of course, you need to admit your mistakes if you're going to learn from them. That, I think, is the cause of the problem here.

** But not exclusively obviously. It's an insanely complicated process with 19 seperate coalitions on the ballot papers. The IAF is, however, highly likely to be the largest beneficiary of the Sunni vote.

*** For any regular visitors, apologies for repeatedly using this photograph. For me, it represents the extraordinary incompetance which has characterised this entire venture.

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