Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Mixed Election

Amir Taheri, New York Post:
As Iraqis prepare to go to the polls Thursday, the insurgents and their terrorist allies are sure to deploy all their energies to assert their presence, as they have in previous elections since liberation. But this test of strength between the terrorists and the Iraqi people is of much greater importance. For this election is about choosing a permanent (four-year) parliament, not a transitional one. At stake, therefore, is the leadership of Iraq to the end of the decade.

Every electoral exercise in liberated Iraq during the past two years has strengthened the nation's resolve to build a new system based on the rule of law and pluralism. At every step, the insurgents and terrorists, who do not want such a system to come into being, have fought hard to interrupt, if not actually stop, the process.

This has been a contest between a doggedly determined nation and its equally resolute enemies. The fact that this latest election is being held exactly on time is enough indication as to who has won so far.

Although the media have focused on the insurgent and terrorist threats, partly because it is easier to cover in graphic terms in this age of television, the real dangers that Iraq faces may be elsewhere. READ MORE

The first such danger is one of misunderstanding. The Iraqis going to the polls may not be quite sure what types of policies are on offer.

At least some of the Shiite parties have practiced taqiyyah (dissimulation) to hide their real agendas. Imitating Tehran's Islamist politicians, they have spoken with a forked tongue about "a religious government" which is at the same time "democratic." It is like describing a bride both as virgin and pregnant.

But these Shiite parties have not been alone in practicing taqiyyah. Several secular politicians (some with prime ministerial ambitions) have also tried to be all things to all, thus undermining the quality of the political debate. The debate over the country's future economic model has also been muddled.

Part of this may be due to inexperience. After all, the politics of an open society differ widely from those of closed despotic systems of which Iraq had been a stark example ever since its creation 84 years ago.

With few exceptions, almost all parties and personalities in the race have been promising a distributionist model in which American-style pork-barrel politics is mixed with Soviet-style state intervention. And that, of course, is a recipe for economic disaster and political uncertainty.

For Iraq to have a chance to build something different, it was necessary that the impediments to change be removed. The political, security and military impediments, all symbolized by Saddam Hussein's neo-fascist regime, have been removed. But the economic philosophy espoused by the Saddamite regime seems to be alive and well, at least as far as several major political parties are concerned.

It is important for the Iraqis to realize that they can't build a Western-style democracy based on a Soviet-style economic model: A key condition of genuine democratization is the creation of a robust and self-confident private sector. Yet that is something that most members of the new Iraqi leadership reject, both by ideology and personal calculations. Almost all want to be chiefs and patrons distributing favors on behalf of the state and buying support for themselves.

Let us hope that enough genuine democrats enter the new National Assembly to argue in favor of a capitalist system with open markets and, down the road, full integration into the global economy.

The campaign was disappointing for at least one other reason: It did not debate the crucial issue of federalism so that Iraqi voters could make a decision based on accurate and substantial information.

It is clear that the Kurds see federalism quite differently from Shiites and Arab Sunnis. The Kurds think that they have won something closer to a confederation, of the type that exists in Switzerland, rather than a federal system modeled on, say, Germany. The Shiites, however, perceive federalism as something close to devolution of the kind the British Labor government had introduced in Scotland and Wales. As for Arab Sunnis, they fear federalism as a fatal disease rather than a cure for Iraq's deadly ethnic and sectarian conflicts.

On the positive side, the campaign highlighted a number of encouraging points. Most important, perhaps, is the decision by the main Arab Sunni parties and tribes to end their electoral boycott and fight for a share of power within the new pluralist system.

Equally important, however, is the fact that all of the 60 or so parties taking part (some of them in the form of coalition lists) had a distinct Iraqi personality. They showed that the concept of Iraqiness (uruqa), dismissed by the Islamists and the pan-Arabists as a myth, is a reality that cuts across ethnic and sectarian divides. Because the concept of uruqa is inclusive, it does not prevent an Iraqi citizen from being a Kurd, a Shiite or a Sunni while, at the same time, sharing a broader Iraqi identity.

The campaign highlighted other interesting points. Almost all the parties committed themselves to working for a quick end to the presence of the U.S.-led Coalition forces in Iraq. But none, including the most openly anti-American, called for an immediate pullout by the Coalition. All Iraqis know they still need the presence of the Coalition and that, once they no longer need it, they'll have no difficulty in negotiating its termination.

The fact that no one campaigned for a return to the bad old days of Saddam Hussein or the revival of the Ba'athist tyranny under a new name, is also encouraging. The old demons of the Ba'ath may still be planting bombs and killing people in the bazaars of Baghdad and Ramadi. But they have no popular base in the emerging Iraq.

And that, believe me, is the real good news from Thursday's vote.

Amir Taheri will give a lecture at noontime tomorrow on "Iraq on the Eve of the General Election." For information, visit