Iraq Votes / Next Task for Iraqi Democracy: Unifying the Country

With closure of the polls, the great victory in Iraq became evident: Cautious estimates say that between 65-70 percent of all voters took part in the first national elections in the country in more than 50 years.

With closure of the polls, the great victory in Iraq became evident: Cautious estimates say that between 65-70 percent of all voters took part in the first national elections in the country in more than 50 years. It is an enormous achievement in the campaign against the terrorist organizations that made every effort to torpedo the elections; an enormous victory for the Iraqi leadership, which rejected demands made by various movements inside and outside Iraq to postpone the voting; and an enormous victory for the American government, which has made a democratic Iraq the main mission of its war there.

But the sweeping public legitimacy given to the elections by the Iraqi people is no guarantee of democracy's success in their country, and the two issues - democracy and elections - should not be confused. The idea of elections was formulated from the start as a solution to enable the existence of a temporary government, in which the main political players, the Shi'ites in their many factions and the Kurds, could run the country by agreement, with the Americans. Therefore, with all due respect that should be ascribed to the successful elections, it is the results of the voting that will determine the political coalitions and constellations. Those coalitions will determine the nature of Iraqi democracy: how much freedom of speech an Iraqi citizen enjoys, what the rights of women and of ethnic and religious minorities will be - and, no less important, how the country's foreign policy will be forged.

There was no need for elections to know that the Shi'ite majority would run Iraq. But will it be a secular Shi'ite majority headed by Dr. Iyad Allawi, the current prime minister, or the religious Shi'ites, whose leader is Abdul Aziz Alhakim? Will the Kurds agree to give up their demand for a federative regime in which their district is run independently, and will they go with whomever promises them more control over Kirkuk, which has become the flammable focus of Kurdish rivalries?

The 275 parliamentarians elected yesterday will have to provide an answer to these questions very soon, after it becomes evident who won and who will be the president and prime minister. It's not merely a matter of ministerial portfolios and jobs. The important task of framing a constitution is at stake. Two important obstacles face the the framers: one involves the Kurdish veto over any change to the current, temporary constitution, and the second, the role of religion as a source of constitutional authority (according to the current, temporary constitution the sharia - Islamic law - is only one of the sources of authority of the constitution).

Both amendments are opposed by the Kurds, who don't regard themselves as part of the Arab or Iraqi religious fabric. Subjecting the Kurdish district to Baghdad's rule, an issue that was not solved under the current regime, will therefore be a major issue for the next government.

The success of the elections can largely be attributed to the determination of the religious Shi'ite leadership, headed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to organize and hold them, and the political preparations he made to advance his goals. Sistani, who was largely responsible for putting down the rebellion of Shi'ite isolationist Muqtada al-Sadr, opposes the establishment of a religious state along the lines of Iran, where the religious leader is also the political leader. But he won't concede the role of religion as an integral part of legislation, with a much more comprehensive scope than that existing according to the temporary constitution. That could have an impact on the relationship between the new government and parliament with the Kurds and the Sunni minority, which anyway feels it got the short end of the stick and won't have any influence over political life in the country.

The government's relationship with the Kurds, which will be part of the Iraqi parliament and the new government that is formed, will also have to deal with the fears of the other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities - Turkey and Iran. Any move by the Iraqi government to allow an independent Kurdish district, or even a federative government in Iraq, will encounter Turkish and Iranian opposition that could affect the new government's ability to consolidate its powers. Iran is already suspected of fomenting subversive activity in Iraq to create a political base there, while Turkey could hurt Kurdish trade that passes through it, thus creating another friction point.

Actually, none of these are new problems that arose in the wake of the elections; rather they surfaced in anticipation of the possibility that the new government might succeed where the previous one failed.

There could be great disappointment or even a backlash against the elections, and the government that was voted in during them, if they don't succeed in convincing Iraqis that there will be more security for its citizens, don't yield well-deserved political or religious benefits for the Shi'ites - who were persecuted for years and kept out of government in Saddam Hussein's day - and don't grant the Kurds the political changes they have longed for during so many years of suffering.