January 26, 2005,
As Sunday's national elections in Iraq draw closer, the calls for delaying the vote grow louder. In these final days before the scheduled vote, we are likely to hear increased criticisms of the electoral process and more dire predictions about the outcome. The coalition of the despondent, that sees nothing but problems in the elections, ranges from former advisers to the U.S. authorities in Iraq to Iraq's neighbors, and, of course, the insurgents themselves. Against them is the majority of Iraqis who are silently, but eagerly, waiting for their country's first free elections.
Iraqis, who are used to being corralled into voting in elections where the result was preordained, share none of the hand wringing about the legitimacy of the January 30 vote. Rather, they are confused by the shifting standards used to question their election.
Iraqis are told that the participation rate, thanks to terrorist and insurgent violence, could be low. Yet it is widely expected that the turnout in Iraq will be far higher than that in many developed nations, including the U.S. Iraqis cannot but notice that few have questioned the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas's election as Palestinian leader despite a lower than expected 62-percent turnout in the January 9 Palestinian vote.
Not that a high turnout necessarily means legitimacy, at least not in the Middle East. During the last Iraqi elections, in October 2002, the official result was 100 percent for Saddam with 100 percent of Iraqis voting.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the many "concerns" expressed about the January 30 elections is the alleged exclusion of the Sunni Arab minority. There is, Iraqis are told, insufficient security in the largely Sunni Arab areas for voting to take place. With high turnouts expected in the overwhelmingly Shia Arab center and south of Iraq and in Iraqi Kurdistan, Sunni Arabs could receive a smaller share of seats in the 275-member national assembly than their roughly 15-percent to 20-percent share of the population.
The insecurity in parts of Iraq is not a natural disaster, but an act of choice made by the Baathists and their terrorist allies. To the offer of elections, and the guarantees of minority rights in Iraq's interim constitution, their response has been violence. The Allawi government's willingness to negotiate with the insurgents was rewarded with a fleet of suicide bombers traveling from Fallujah to Baghdad.
Some of the most vociferous defenders of the rights of those Sunni Arabs who ruled over Iraq, who have been referred to as an "ancient elite," are Iraq's neighbors, in particular Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. What these critics forget is that one of the reasons why Iraq is holding elections in which the country is treated as one, national constituency is precisely to placate the worries of Iraq's neighbors. Time and again, these countries, and Arab states in general, have complained that Iraq might disintegrate, that Iraqi unity and territorial integrity are under threat. Yet if Iraq's elections were conducted on a district basis, as they are in the U.S., then these neighbors would claim that the division of Iraq was being formalized.
Most Iraqis are skeptical of the cries of alleged marginalization coming from those who benefited from Saddam's rule and who still support the Baathists. These, after all, are the same Baathists who for decades brutally clubbed Iraq's culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse populations into a Baathist defined mould. When they were firmly in charge, they wanted one Iraq. Now that the only path to political power is through the ballot box, the Baathists and their allies plead the case of regional autonomy. While not all of these Baathists were Sunni Arabs, and not all Sunni Arabs were Baathists, the two did overlap to a significant extent.
Delaying the elections, as some in Iraq and the U.S. have suggested, would not provide an opportunity to bring these objectors into the political fold. Rather, these insincere opponents will be emboldened in their opposition to the very notion of a democratic Iraq. They will discover new misgivings and will call for new delays. Worse yet, the insurgents and terrorists who murder Iraqi women who dare to do the laundry for U.S. soldiers will have been told that their tactics work.
Iraqis are tired of their history being written by violent minorities, by men who ride to power on tanks. On January 30, the silent majority of Iraqis, the long-suffering millions for whom no regional leader ever spoke up, the disenfranchised whose lives were blighted by war and persecution, will take power through the ballot box. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Maha Alattar is president of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, a nonprofit organization promoting democracy in Iraq. She fled Saddam Hussein's regime in 1983 and currently resides in North Carolina.