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Difficult labour for the birth of a democratic Iraq

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Uncertainty and chaos hang over the forthcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections, due to be held on January 30th. Will they be Iraq’s first step towards democracy?

Since December 16th 2004, 5000 candidates have been officially on the campaign trail in Iraq. But progress has been slow as candidates have been unable to hold meetings, meet their fellow countrymen or even move freely around the country. At a couple of weeks before the ballot, attacks on coalition forces, the Iraqi police and representatives of the Iraqi authority have sharply increased, causing over one hundred deaths in just three days - including that of the governor of Iraq.

However, this bloody electoral campaign does have the merit of allowing freedom of speech. The Iraqi ‘resistance’ will attempt to annihilate this on a daily basis, from now until the 30th January, and for a long time to come. What these rebels are trying to destroy in Iraq is the emergence of a politically mobilised populace, or ‘civil society’, where everyone is able to express themselves, even if it is to articulate a rejection of the election process. The end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, despite the chaos of the war, did allow the emergence of circumstances required for democracy to materialise. Today, the Iraqi government no longer has the power to arbitrarily detain Iraqis, to suppress public liberties, to ban newspapers, to close down radio stations, to censor television programmes or to disband political parties. The political expert Antoine Basbous, founder and director of the Observatoire des pays arabes (Observatory for Arab Countries), describes this moment as creating “the conditions which enable a space for freedom of expression to exist, where civil society can be found somewhere between the dictatorships’ repression and the domes of the mosques”. These beginnings of democracy, which this election is offering the Iraqi people, can allow them to progressively detach themselves from this dual tutelage.

Political diversification

This is the first time that Iraqis have tasted the right to vote. However, “It’s not an experience that they have prepared for” reminds the Iraqi daily As Zaman, the first newspaper to be set up in Baghdad after the war. For this newspaper, created by Iraqis exiled in London in 1997, “this election remains a historic occasion for the Iraqi people to turn the page and force the masks of the various leaders and rulers to fall”. The electoral campaign has created a prism, which magnifies the new freedoms that are present in Iraq. Diverse opinions are being expressed in newspapers of every persuasion and amongst the 5000 candidates standing for election to the 275 member assembly, one third are women. Moreover, for the first time since the creation of an Iraqi state 84 years ago, all political tendencies are represented in the 80 political blocs which have been formed from more than 230 parties and groups running in the election. It is also worth noting that nine of these blocs are composed of candidates from different faiths and backgrounds. For example, the ‘Iraqi bloc’ of the current Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the ‘Iraqioun bloc' (the Iraqis), which brings together all the Sunni and Shiite personalities under the leadership of the current interim President, Sunni Ghazi al-Yawar. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s ‘United Iraqi Alliance’ brings together Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis and Turkmen. The communists and royalists also have an unprecedented chance to stand for election. Finally, the rival Kurdish leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, have made the historic step of uniting to form one bloc.

The Sunni Question

This leaves the problem of the Sunni minority, who had the greatest share of political power under Saddam. After having initially decided to take part in the elections, the main bloc, Mohsen Abdel Hamid’s ‘Iraqi Islamic Party’, has chosen to boycott the elections. As stated by Adnan Pachachi, leader of the ‘Iraqi Independent Democrats’ (the other Sunni bloc) there is fear that the election will be ‘hijacked’ by the Shiites in the South and the Kurds in the North, who should have less difficulty in going to vote than the Sunnis in the central part of the country, where the reigning insecurity may well compromise the election process. In mid-December the daily newspaper An Nahar underlined in its editorial that serious inequalities could come out of this election. Indeed within the ‘triangle of death’, which includes towns such as Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadia, it is unlikely that voters will be able to make their way to the polling stations. “If this project of a new Iraq is to form a regime grouping together the full diversity of Iraq’s ethic groups and faiths, then how can a national Iraqi council come out of an election in which one of the country’s main social groups has not participated?” asks writer Mohammed Mahmoud. Given the number of ethnic groups and religious groups that are represented, in the end this election will only lead to a quota-based distribution of power and ultimately a civil war between the different fractions.

Don’t abandon the Iraqis

To avoid this danger, it falls to the ‘exporters’ of democracy to protect the burgeoning democratic spirit in Iraq. The elections on the 30th January is only the start of a long process. As says Dr Mahmoud Othman, independent Kurd and respected member of the interim government, “it is clear we are observing the painful labour of the birth of a new Iraq”. The ball is currently in the coalition’s court, which “must increase its labours, intelligence and means, in order to ensure that everything goes smoothly, so that the efforts of so many years are not ruined and our hopes are not dashed.” Democracy cannot be exported from one day to the next. It is now up to the ‘liberators’, who must learn to wait for the Iraqi nation to heal its wounds.

Translated from Accouchement difficile pour un Irak démocratique