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Democracy At Gunpoint

DAHR JAMAIL, Outlookindia.com

Much is being made of voter turnout, but was it thanks to the stakes Shias and Kurds have in coming to power?

Vote's In It For Iraq?

* Iraq's voter turnout revised from 72 per cent to 60 per cent. This isn't the final figure, and could change after the counting of votes.

* High voter turnout in the southern Shia and northern Kurd areas

* Nearly 80 per cent of Sunnis boycotted the election. Some polling stations in Sunni areas didn't even open.

* Threats of denying monthly food rations scared many into voting

* At places the turnout was far in excess of registered voters

The Iraq election is over, with a major non-election right at the centre of the country. Up north, Kurds voted for the sake of independence, even if autonomy was the more accepted word for it. Down south, the Shias did it to take what they saw as their long-denied right to power. Sunnis in Baghdad and the region around almost did not vote at all.

And how many did vote? US-appointed spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI) Farid Ayar initially announced an estimated turnout of 72 per cent. He then backtracked to say 60 per cent—of registered voters—would be a closer estimate. By way of explanation, Ayar said his previous figure was "just an estimate" based on "very rough, word-of-mouth estimates gathered informally from the field". But even 60 per cent was not necessarily the final figure. "Percentages and numbers come only after counting and will be announced when it's over." The counting is expected to end next week.

Worse, the election almost remained unobserved. The United Nations and the European Union formed a panel of about 20 international observers—but based them in Amman in Jordan because Iraq was not considered safe enough for them. Instead, the administration posted about 20,000 Iraqi supporters of the US occupation as 'observers' at poll centres.

Many Iraqis at polling booths said their names were recently 'marked' off on the list of a government agency that provides monthly food rations—this subtle threat, circulating for a while, proved a major goad. "I'll vote as I can't afford to have my food ration cut," said Amin Hajar, 52, owner of a small auto garage in Baghdad. "There's a rumour that if we don't vote, our ration will be stopped. And if that happens, I and my family would starve to death." When he picked up his monthly ration before the election, Hajar said he was forced to sign a form stating he had collected his voter registration. He believed the government would use this to track whether he votes or not. While the connection between the voting list and the ration list may just have been rumour, it clearly got people worried.

In Shia-dominated areas in the south, the ballot papers were distributed at stores that hand out the monthly food ration. Several of these ration stores were attacked by resistance militants opposed to the elections. Some were burnt down, and several people handing out ballot papers were kidnapped or threatened.

But large numbers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's followers came out to vote despite threats of violence. Because here it was a contest for a way of being religious or secular. If Shias come to power as expected, inner tensions among them are certain to surface. The secular Shia group headed by US-appointed interim prime minister Iyad Allawi would have to work with the religious Shias of al-Sistani.

The United Iraqi Alliance list backed by al-Sistani is likely to have received the majority of votes from the predominantly southern Shia region of Iraq, which had a relatively strong turnout on election day. But this group's desire to bring the rule of Islamic law to Iraq worries both Sunnis and secular Shias. The large turnout was not in any case a newfound zeal for the democratic principle.

Nor did that seem the case in the Kurdish areas up north, which too saw a massive turnout.

The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, both fought together on a single slate for the National Assembly and contested against one another in simultaneous elections for an autonomous regional government.

The local Kurdish parties plan to hold a referendum on the inclusion of oil-rich Kirkuk under the authority of Iraqi Kurdistan post-poll. This is an explosive move. Most of the current populace of Kirkuk are Iraqis of Arab origin, or Turkomens of Turkish origin. The Arabs were brought in to settle in Kirkuk in what Kurds see as a process of ethnic swamping they now want to reverse with a campaign of their own.

Here the rush to vote seemed driven more by demographic than by democratic zeal. In Pir Dawud village about 40 km from the northern city Arbil, the informal Kurdish police, the Peshmerga, had to fire shots in the air to stop people rushing up to vote. The polling station here was set up to handle 1,500 voters, but more than 9,000 turned up, and they all voted. There was no voter list, because the presence of resistance elements made it too risky to collect names. So anyone with an ID card of any kind could produce a card and cast a vote—or maybe more, because no one was keeping track.

With almost all the votes behind them, the two Kurdish parties will push to establish autonomy that could, at a later date, lead to an independent federalist state. Already reports from the north indicate that autonomy here means independence. Kurd party officials began touring towns after the election with a petition asking Kurds whether they support Kurdish independence. The answer was an overwhelming yes. An independent Kurdistan will have geopolitical ramifications in Iraq—and beyond.

With an estimated 80 per cent of the Sunni population boycotting the election, many Iraqis remain sceptical of the upcoming governmental process. The new National Assembly will produce a constitution that will then be held to a referendum by October 15 this year. By December 15, elections will again be held to select a new government. "You have democracy and then you have an election," said Khalid, an unemployed engineer in central Baghdad. "You cannot hold an election like this and then say this is democracy."

Yet what this forced election has done is reverse decades of political dominance by the Sunni Arabs. Due to their boycotts and the strong Shia and Kurd turnout, the latter will most likely win the most seats in the National Assembly, and to that extent have the power to pursue their separate agendas.

Living amidst a shattered state, untenable unemployment, dismal infrastructure and a security scenario that still reeks of war, many Iraqis have still voted, despite ethnic and sectarian influences, in the hope the election will lead to a better future. Yet the violence continues. On election day itself nine suicide-bombers and frequent mortar attacks left at least 40 Iraqis dead and hundreds wounded by the time polling stations shut down at 5 pm. The election has not provided answers, it has only raised more questions. And none bigger than this: is this the beginning of democracy or the beginning of the end of Iraq as we know it?

Dahr Jamail is an independent American journalist, who's been reporting out of Iraq for eight months of the occupation. He writes regularly for the Inter Press Service.

:: Article nr. 9483 sent on 06-feb-2005 04:09 ECT


Link: www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20050214&fname=Iraq+(F)&sid=1

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