Sunday's elections in Iraq may constitute a historic occasion, but it's doubtful they will relieve the dismal situation in the country.
Fear for the lives of the approximately 7,500 candidates who are running in the elections for the Iraqi Parliament was the reason why only on Tuesday did the committee responsible for organizing the elections begin to publish their names. Publicizing their names too early would place them and their families in mortal danger. And in a country where policemen work with their faces covered, so that potential attackers and members of radical organizations will not murder them, political secrecy is an existential necessity.
Therefore, Iraqi citizens have so far become familiar only with the leaders of the more than 100 parties, but not with those who are supposed to be members of the first free parliament in half a century. The citizens of Iraq do not know, even now, who will participate in the elections to be held on Sunday. Will the command of the Sunni religious leaders to boycott the elections really prevent their followers from participating? Will the heads of the tribes who usually do not obey the religious leaders instruct their people to take part?
It is also doubtful whether anyone will know how the elections were conducted, whether there were forgeries, threats, voting by people not permitted to vote. In contrast to the elections in the Palestinian Authority or in Afghanistan, only 112 foreign observers will be monitoring the elections in Iraq - a very small number, and certainly insufficient for covering even the polling stations in the city of Baghdad. The country is too dangerous for such observers, and even the UN cannot allow itself to place its people in such danger. The result will be that the citizens of Iraq will know who was elected and who will be president, but they will not be able to boast of free and democratic elections. They will know only "approximately" how the politics of the country, and mainly its next constitution, will look.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who this week once again apparently detonated several booby-trapped cars and caused the deaths of another several dozen citizens, is perhaps the most active participant in these elections. He is the one who has dictated their degree of freedom and democracy. He is the one who will influence voter turnout, the number of candidates and the ability of the country to function after the elections. And primarily, he is the one who will determine the date when the American soldiers can return home, and thus end the occupation of Iraq. The new provisional date that has been set for any withdrawal is in 2007, but nobody in the U.S. administration is willing to promise at present that this will in fact be the final date.
The parliamentary elections are only another step, albeit an important one, toward establishing an Iraqi state - but for the time being they are no more than elegant clothes on a body in the throes of death. Since its occupation, Iraq has in fact undergone several political processes. A provisional government council was established, followed by a provisional government, and a provisional constitution has been written, but it is clear to everyone that the really important political game will begin on Monday. This is the struggle during which the final balance of power will be determined, and during which the character of the state will be shaped.
Because if the timetable is maintained, as it has been more or less until now, the 275 members of Parliament who will be elected on Sunday must formulate a permanent constitution for the country by the end of August. The constitution will specifically spell out whether this state is secular or religious, what the status of the Kurds will be, whether it will be a federation or a united nation, whether the state will be defined as an Arab state or an Arab state in part, because of Kurdish opposition.
Two months later, the constitution will be presented to a national referendum, and next December there are supposed to be additional elections, this time for the government. In the first stage, the new Parliament will choose the president of the country and his two deputies, and the president will be the one to appoint the prime minister.
Kurds and Shi'ites
If, symbolically, this is an historic occasion, in a country that in the past two years has experienced more historic occasions than it intended, the elections cannot change the dismal situation in Iraq all at once. U.S. President George W. Bush will certainly point to the great importance of free elections in an Arab country that has just recently been liberated from a tyrannical regime, but the country itself has not been liberated from the burden of its severe daily problems. For example, last December the citizens of Iraq received less electricity than in October, and although many schools have been renovated, the water and sewage infrastructure it still destroyed for the most part. In the city of Mosul, the local police infrastructure was totally destroyed in the wake of a long series of attacks on policemen, and it has been replaced by Kurdish Peshmarga soldiers.
Therefore, there is fear that the Kurds will take advantage of their military presence in order to take over the non-Kurdish parts of the city as well, and to create a situation similar to that in Kirkuk. And it is impossible to expect the new Iraqi government, which will be probably be headed by Iyad Alawi once again, to succeed where the present Alawi government failed: in solving the increasingly severe crisis of Kirkuk.
The Kurds, who are not giving up their control of the city and want to annex it to the Kurdish region, forced the elections committee for the local councils to register 50,000 Kurds as having the right to vote, in order to guarantee their continued control of the city. Such domination will only become stronger and is liable to lead to another rift between Iraq and Turkey and Syria, and primarily to a deepening of the rift between the Iraqi state and the Kurdish region within it. In effect, for the past year and a half, the Kurdish area has been run as a de facto independent state, and this independent administration has not only economic implications, which require the central government to transfer 18 percent of its revenues to the Kurds, but political implications as well.
For example, the united Shi'ite ticket, the largest list competing in the elections, decided to announce its support for the establishment of an independent Shi'ite region in southern Iraq, similar to the Kurdish region. Although the decision cannot be carried out in the near future because of differences of opinion within the Shi'ite list, it is a broad hint to the Kurds as to what the future of Iraq is liable to hold if the ticket wins. The practical meaning is that if an independent Shi'ite region is in fact established, the government will also support the independent Kurdish region - and in effect, the federal solution, as the Kurds want. And even if these festive promises are not carried out because of international or internal Iraqi pressures, it is clear that the Kurds are likely to have a great interest not only in the success of the united Shi'ite ticket, but in the appointment of a Shi'ite prime minister instead of the present prime minister, Iyad Alawi.
For his part, Alawi, who is running on a separate ticket, with a platform of a secular Iraq (as opposed to the united Shi'ite list, which is headed by Shi'ite religious leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim) expects repayment from the Kurds for his treatment of them thus far. He is the one who ruled that the Kurdish Peshmarga are an army rather than a militia, and are therefore permitted to continue to bear arms. He is the one who granted the Kurdish region more independence, by not subordinating it to the central government in matters relating to administering the borders and customs, and he is the one who agreed to have the Peshmarga participate in the battle for Faluja, thereby granting them the official status of government forces.
If political cooperation is in fact created between the united Shi'ite ticket and the Kurds, the Shi'ite religious leaders are likely to receive a great deal of power, which will enable them, by means of the new constitution, to dictate the religious character of the state, in a manner that will almost totally neutralize the power of the Sunnis. This will constitute a surefire prescription for the continuation of the armed struggle in the country. The Sunnis, who are also not all cut from the same cloth, and are divided among themselves between family, tribal and ideological loyalties, are no longer being taken into account, to the point where even their threats to boycott are not considered a threat to the legitimacy of the elections. An Iraqi Parliament can function even without the 20 percent of the population who are Sunnis.
All this is going on at a time when the infrastructure of the Iraqi economy is not being restored. The attacks on the main oil pipelines are continuing. About 300 lethal attacks are recorded each week; foreign investors do not want to come and the construction of new plants and reconstruction of the old ones is being further delayed. According to the figures of the U.S. Treasury Department, of the $18.4 billion allocated by Congress for rehabilitation activities in Iraq, only $2.4 billion have been used so far, and another approximately $10 billion are in a process of being invested.
But even in this area, supervision is almost impossible. The American supervisors are forced to use a heavy military escort, which is not always available, and therefore they have to depend on the Iraqi engineers and supervisors. The result is a tremendous waste of money, and slow reconstruction. The Iraqi parties that are running in the elections promise new jobs, but in street interviews conducted by Arab media, few citizens express faith in these promises.
Some of the parties, which understand that they cannot offer jobs, have turned to other types of benefits. For example, a representative of the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture in the Shi'ite city of Najaf invited the farmers in the district to list their agricultural implements, such as tractors and combines, in order to receive free repairs. Cement suppliers in the city, who are associated with one of the parties, decided to grant franchises to associates, as opposed to the position of the Iraqi Ministry of Commerce, which is held by a competing politician.
Government budgets that are in the hands of Prime Minister Alawi are transferred to people loyal to the government, which itself spread a rumor this week - and then hastened to deny it - that anyone who doesn't participate in the elections will lose the certificate entitling him to food allotments. This rumor in any case includes a threat against anyone who doesn't vote for the candidates on the prime minister's list. Meanwhile, Alawi continues to appear in impressive ads in the Arab press and on Arab television, in which he promises with a broad, self-satisfied smile: "A safe Iraq with a strong administration." It's not clear whether he means that Iraq will be strong as long as the Iraqi administration is strong, or whether he is referring to the U.S. administration, which would like to see Alawi's government continue to serve after the elections.
Two days before the elections, against the background of the attacks and the promises, Iraq is waiting for the results of one preliminary test: the voter turnout. A rate of 50 percent and above will be considered a great success, as complete legitimization of the process. A low voter turnout will signify not only success for the terror organizations operating in Iraq, but primarily a dismal failure for American policy and its newly minted logo: Exporting democracy.