Reading the Elections

Wednesday 2 February 2005, by Phyllis BENNIS

The individual Iraqis who came out to vote clearly were very brave and eager to reclaim control of their country. They were voting for their hopes, for secure streets so children can go to school, for electricity and clean water, for jobs, and mostly for an end to the U.S. occupation.

The elections, however, are unlikely to achieve any of those goals; the violence is likely to continue, perhaps even increase. The U.S. occupation is STILL the problem, not the solution, in Iraq, and only bringing the U.S. troops home, not imposing elections under continuing occupation, will lead to an end of violence.

Millions of Iraqis participated in the election, but it is still unclear how many. International journalists were limited to five polling stations in Baghdad, four of which were in Shi’a districts with expected high turnout. The U.S.-backed election commission in Iraq originally announced a 72% participation immediately after the polls closed, then downscaled that to "near 60%" - actually claiming about 57% turn-out. But those figures are all still misleading. The Washington Post reported (two days after the vote, on page 7 of the Style section) that the 60% figure is based on the claim that 8 million out of 14 million eligible Iraqis turned out. But the 14 million figure itself is misleading, because it only includes those registered Iraqis, not the 18 million actually eligible voters. Similarly, the claim of very high voter participation among Iraqi exiles is misleading, since only 280,000 or so Iraqis abroad even registered, out of about 1.2 million qualified to register and vote. The participation of women, both as candidates (imposed by the U.S.-backed electoral law) and as voters, was significant, but key demands of Iraqi women, particularly involving economic and social rights disproportionately denied to women, are unlikely to be met through this electoral process.

At least in the short term, George Bush will emerge as the major winner in this election, through the false propaganda claim that Iraqi participation and enthusiasm for the elections somehow equals legitimacy for his continued occupation and the preventive war that put it in place. This is the latest effort to identify mileposts "on the road to freedom" in Iraq - earlier ones included the " Mission accomplished" claim, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the "transfer of sovereignty," and none of them led to freedom, independence and security for Iraqis. In fact, Bush’s false claim of legitimacy continues to hold the Iraqi population and the 150,000 U.S. soldiers hostage to his agenda and occupation.

The Bush administration’s goal is to increase the legitimacy of the occupation and the broader Iraq project, including a more vigorous counter-insurgency war, in the eyes of Americans and international public and governmental opinion. This may lead to some European leaders, in particular, eager to rejoin the Bush bandwagon, to use the election’s "success" as the basis for challenging their own population’s continuing opposition to the U.S. occupation. The president of the European Commission, José Manual Baroso, congratulated the Iraqi people for their courage, and said that the election represented "European values."

It is a huge insult to the people of Iraq to claim that enthusiasm for democracy only emerged when it was "offered" to Iraq in the form of elections imposed under the conditions of military occupation.

The Iraqi election was not legitimate. It was held under conditions of a hostile military foreign occupation. The Hague Convention of 1907, to which the U.S. is a signatory, prohibits the occupying power from creating any permanent changes in the government of the occupied territory. These elections were arranged under an electoral law and by an electoral commission installed and backed by the occupying power. They took place in an environment so violent that voters could not even learn the names of candidates, and the three days surrounding the vote included a complete lock-down of the country, including shoot-to-kill curfews in many areas, closure of the airport and borders, and closure of roads. There were no international monitors in the country - unlike Afghanistan (with 122 monitors) and Palestine (with 800) during difficult elections held under occupation, Iraq
was deemed too dangerous for international election monitors. The Canadian-led team of international election "assessors," who made an early claim that the elections met international standards, were in fact based outside the country, in Jordan.

The U.S.-based Carter Center , which has monitored elections around the world for more than a decade, declined to participate in Iraq . But they did identify key criteria for determining the legitimacy of elections, and their spokesman noted the day before the elections that none had been met. Those criteria included the ability of voters to vote in a free and secure environment, the ability of candidates to have access to voters for campaigning, a freely chosen and independent election commission, and voters able to vote without fear or intimidation.

The new Iraqi transitional Assembly, despite a certain majority of Shi’a-dominated parties, will be unlikely to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Despite claims by many Shi’a leaders that they want an end to the occupation, this "government," whose legitimacy will remain tainted by its ties to the occupying forces, will remain in power only with the backing of the U.S. troops. The Sunni current interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, one of the most critical voices of the U.S. occupation, announced after the vote that it would be "complete nonsense" to call for an end to the occupation.

Despite the effort to maintain an "Iraqi face" on the troops guarding the voting process, it was clear that, according to Newsweek magazine, "the U.S. army role was pivotal in the election." U.S. embassy officials also told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was important "not to read too much" into the level of security that made the elections possible - guarding polling places is easier than fighting a counter-insurgency, they said. Bush announced after the elections that "as democracy takes hold in Iraq , America ’s mission there will continue." Newly installed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice affirmed that, " U.S. troops will stay till Iraqis can do the job."

U.S. domination of Iraq remains unchanged with this election. The U.S.-imposed Transitional Administrative Law, imposed by the U.S. occupation, remains the law of the land even with the new election. Amending that law requires super-majorities of the assembly as well as a unanimous agreement by the presidency council, almost
impossible given the range of constituencies that must be satisfied. Chiefs of key control commissions, including Iraq’s Inspector General, the Commission on Public Integrity, the Communication and Media Commission and others, were appointed by Bremer with five-year terms, can only be dismissed "for cause." The Council of Judges, as well as individual judges and prosecutors, were selected, vetted and trained by the U.S. occupation, and are dominated by long-time U.S.-backed exiles.

The 40,000+ civilian and military "advisers," including private contractors and U.S. government officials, seconded to Iraq ’s ministries and all public institutions will remain powerful; with the new assembly sending new staff to these ministries, the U.S. "advisers" may hold the institutional memory.

The $16 billion of U.S. taxpayer money not spent in the reconstruction effort (the billions paid to Halliburton, Bechtel, and others has come almost entirely out of U.S.-appropriated Iraqi funds) as well as the $50 billion/year military costs will become a potential slush fund for the new assembly’s favored projects. The U.S.-backed privatization schemes imposed by former U.S. pro-consul Paul Bremer remain in place. The current interim finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, touted by the Los Angeles Times as a potential candidate for deputy president or prime minister, recently announced his support for the complete privatization of Iraq ’s oil industry.

Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies

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