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A Pleasantly Dull Election in Iraq

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Lest it be forgotten in our great inward-looking mood of domestic insecurity, I'm going to throw out a reminder that there is a world outside of our troubled borders. One thing which happened in that world recently was an election in Iraq.

It was the fourth election since the US intervention there, but it set many firsts. It was the first election largely unmarred by violence. It was the first election where all of the security was provided by the Iraqi government. It was the first election where all of the religious, ethnic and political factions in Iraq participated. It was the most free and open election in Iraq's history and probably the most democratic event in the region's history. It was a dull election in many ways, but that's really what you want in a country which has been through so much turmoil.

Over 400 different political blocs participated in the election, representing every imaginable minority group from Iraqis of African descent to Christians to Yazidis to Turkmens, as well as the larger groups of Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Elections in the northern Kurdish provinces are on a different schedule. Having realized the opportunities they lost by boycotting previous elections, the Sunni population participated in large numbers for the first time, finally free of fear of reprisals from insurgents and terrorists. Overall turnout was 51%, lower than in the 2005 election, which may be a sign of growing complacency or a certain level of cynicism in the population. Turnout was highest in the Sunni provinces where voters have not been represented in the government for more than three years and are eager to participate.

Voting was still a high security affair. Cars were banned from many streets during the election and there were checkpoints with armed guards. There were some arrests of potential suicide bombers before the election and a few mortar rounds were launched at some of the polling locations, but on the whole the level of violence was low. When the voting was over, most Iraqis walked safely back to neighborhoods where the cafes and shops were open and it was possible to walk the streets without the threat of violence from religious fanatics and criminal gangs. You could even buy Arak (in violation of Muslim law) in liquor stores and clubs if you wanted to celebrate with a toast.

This election does not change the national government. That vote will come next year. Iraq's government is elected and representative, but it's a peculiarly hierarchical system with power distributed between federal and regional governments, with scores of political parties and elections where you vote for groups of candidates rather than individuals. It's not democracy as we know it, but it is a unique hybrid system which seems well suited to the special character of the emerging nation.

In these provincial elections it looks like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's moderate coalition performed well, as did the awakening faction of tribal groups in Anbar province and various Sunni parties. The most ground appears to have been lost by religiously extreme Shiite groups like the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq whose insurgent allies were effectively destroyed by government forces last year and whose former terror-ridden constituents have moved to support more secular parties in a likely backlash against sectarian violence and against their connections with Iran.

There are still problems in Iraq. One reason voter turnout may have been low is a general dissatisfaction with a government which is seen as corrupt and inefficient, but at this point the country appears to be about as functional as it was under Saddam Hussein, with a great deal more freedom and opportunity. To be entirely honest, conditions aren't much worse for the average Iraqi than for citizens of many of the neighboring countries, and unlike many of those countries the citizens have the benefits of secular rule and reasonable laws and are relatively free from the scourges of slavery, intolerance and religious fanaticism. In fact, their experiences in the post war period seem to have taught Iraqis to value the secular traditions which set them apart from many of their neighbors.

The story of Iraq's painful transition from autocracy to freedom is certainly not over, but in this election Iraq has passed another significant milestone in its evolution into a functional, independent nation with viable, representative government.

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About Dave Nalle

  • Georgio

    Dave…I think your article was an honest assessment of the situation in Iraq and I really liked this part of your article if it is true,
    “The most ground appears to have been lost by religiously extreme Shiite groups like the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq whose insurgent allies were effectively destroyed by government forces last year and whose former terror-ridden constituents have moved to support more secular parties in a likely backlash against sectarian violence and against their connections with Iran.”
    My understanding is that we are paying $300 per person every month to certain groups not to kill our soldiers and keep the violence down..I googled it and found this to be true..and I think they just had another suicide bomber kill some more ppl today ..so yes they are getting along much better but at the expense of the Iraq military and USA dollars..so it is a fragile situation that we cannot sustain with our money..
    I am not looking for an argument here but how long do you think this can go on and do you see an end to it?..I for one do not think the whole thing was worth it and was a big mistake .
    I also believe they will never be a Democratic society and will end up with another dictator allied with Iran..I hope I am wrong..

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    IMO paying $300 per person per month for the Sheikhs in Anbar to use tribal forces to keep the peace is a low price to pay. The Iraqi government will likely continue the policy.

    I imagine there will always be some violence, but as Israel has proven you can continue to have a functional society with the occasional terrorist attack. It’s a lesson the US needs to learn as well.

    I think Iraq’s system of government might survive, because it’s so decentralized, not at all like a modern democracy. It combines tribal and parliamentary and federalist ideas with the result that there’s lots of voting to keep people interested, but it’s all kind of redundant and the real decisions get made by various political factions and alliances. More like government by consensus than a real democracy, and I think it’s uniquely well suited to the middle east.

    Dave

  • Memelleschi

    God bless America and pass the Oil Law!

  • Mark Ed(en)

    God bless America and pass the Oil Law and Balsamic Vinegar!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Voter turnout tends to be low in local government elections ayway, so that’s probably the primary explanation here. Even democracy virgins like Iraqi Sunnis will be aware that you’re not going to change the world by electing Mr Hasani who runs the ironmonger’s as the local councilman for the last six houses in your street.

    Still, 51% is pretty impressive by American standards. No doubt once the cynicism sets in that figure will drop at future elections, assuming Iraqis are fortunate enough to have them.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Dave –

    The story of Iraq’s painful transition from autocracy to freedom is certainly not over, but in this election Iraq has passed another significant milestone in its evolution into a functional, independent nation with viable, representative government.

    Very true. All it took was:

    4,000+ dead American servicemembers,

    well over half a TRILLION U.S. dollars (the total bill may well be over two trillion),

    two million Iraqi refugees who are STILL in Jordan and Syria,

    Ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis by the Shi’a…enabled by OUR invasion,

    possibly as many as a MILLION Iraqi men, women, and children dead,

    the loss of our national honor and prestige for breaking international treaties against unprovoked aggressive war and torture, both approved by a president whose action were by definition war crimes…

    …Dave, don’t get me wrong – I’m happy that the Iraqis are getting back on track, but sometimes good deeds, no matter how well-intentioned, just aren’t worth the cost.