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In a number of ways, it would not be an exaggeration to describe the elections taking place in Iraq today as historic. After all, this is the first time in 50 years that elections have been held in Iraq. It is the first time that the Shia majority will gain control of the country and the first time in which the parliament in an Arab country - with the exception of Lebanon - will have real authority.

One more novelty could be added: The occupation forces are those encouraging the Iraqis to participate in the elections. To differentiate from elections in "normal" countries, this is not only a democratic process, but paradoxically, a process whose success is also that of the American occupation.

These elections are taking place as detached from the harsh reality of Iraq, and its promoters are trying to create the sense that in them lies the panacea for all the security and economic difficulties in the country.

Unlike the elections in Afghanistan or the Palestinian Authority, in which the identity of the victor was nearly certain, in Iraq the elections are likely to shape the character of the country.

The election results are certain only in terms of the ethno-religious makeup of its leadership: Arab Shia. For example, the electoral list of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which in general represents the secular Shia, is not guaranteed to win. Estimates hold that it will be the religious Shia list, which also includes secular groups, such as the list of Ahmad Chelebi, that will win most of the votes.

These elections do not represent the Iraqi population. Many of the Sunni citizens will not participate in them because they interpret the elections as a political coup that will strip them of their central position of power. The Sunnis, 20 percent of the population, have no chance of winning power and, therefore, are seeking to strip all legitimacy of the elections by boycotting them.

Herein lies the biggest unknown in the elections: the turnout rate, which will also impart on these elections the degree of their legitimacy. Data on the participation of expatriate Iraqis in the elections is disappointing. Of 1 million eligible voters, only 35,000 have voted.

In Iraq, local experts believe the turnout will be significantly higher, in spite of the violence. The Kurds, for example, are expected to take full part, as they stand to be among the major victors, along with the Shia. The Sunni boycott may turn out not to be complete, since in these elections not only are parliamentarians chosen but also those who will head each of the 18 districts in Iraq.

On the other hand, if it turns out that the 25,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops guarding the polls are insufficient and terrorist attacks deter the voters, the elections may be completed without the necessary level of essential legitimacy.

Assuming a sufficient turnout, the nature of the coalition formed after the elections will be of particular importance, especially the degree of political power that is given to the Kurds. Their role will be to check the tendency of the Shia clerics to create a theocracy in Iraq, by supporting the secular Shia. This function will come to bear in formulating a constitution that will be brought before the parliament for a referendum in October.

However, if the religious Shia offer the Kurds the possibility of an autonomous region and return lands confiscated by the Saddam Hussein regime, then the regional concerns of Turkey, Syria and Iran may emerge in full after the elections.