The real issues in Iraq's premature elections

By Saad Jawad

Financial Times

Published: January 27 2005

Whether or not it will be the first step for democracy, as promised, the divisive nature of Iraq's long-awaited elections has become clearer as the Sunday poll approaches. The move by the vast majority of Iraq's Sunni population to boycott or simply ignore the election will undoubtedly harm the legitimacy of the results. Most Sunni parties have pulled out of the election contest and even some big Shia organisations and personalities are boycotting the poll. Meanwhile some Kurdish political figures - up to now the most supportive of the electoral process - have expressed concern about the polls' credibility.

While longing for such a democratic process, many of the above individuals an d parties feel they were sidelined by the interim government and the US-led occupying forces while preparing for the elections. They complain they were not approached or consulted by those who wrote the election law or drafted its regulations. The Iraqi electoral commission, for example, was established by the coalition administration and the Ira qi government without consulting the different Iraqi political or judicial organisations.

Significantly, the critics claim that, without international monitors, there are no assurances that these elections will be neutral or fair. The United Nations refused to send observers and no other capable and credible body is offering to do so. Most important, however, is a belief among many critics that free and credible elections simply cannot be carried out in the shadow of occupation.

These critics do not rule out participating in elections but argue that the poll should be postponed a few months to give rival parties time to prepare their rank and file. Under this plan, the poll should be preceded by two reconciliation conferences, one in Baghdad and the other in a neighbouring country, designed to bridge differences between the interim government and opposing factions on election issues. Many parties have also called for reorganisation of Iraq's electoral commission to include representatives of all major Iraqi political groups. They want the UN Security Council to issue a new resolution that would commit it to the monitoring of the elections and also include a clear US timetable for the withdrawal of US-led forces from Iraq.

The national assembly that emerges from elections should be free to accept or reject any law. In other words, all laws and regulations imposed or issued by the US-led forces should not be seen as binding on any future government.

But the US administration, which is still the real power in Iraq, has not accepted any of these suggestions. It fails to see the fact that the January 30 poll date is not the sacred issue - rather, it is the holding of a credible election that produces widely accepted results.

It is clear that the insistence of the US and its allies on sticking to Sunday's premature timetable is rooted in their own interests and objectives. Washington wants early elections because it is talking about pulling out of Iraq the moment an elected Iraqi assembly is put in place. The pro- election Shia parties and Iraqi government figures see an opportunity in early elections to dominate the future government.

One could reasonably ask how America could contemplate quitting Iraq after all the efforts, plans and sacrifices it made to occupy and then dominate an oil-rich and strategic country. The answer is simple. The US administration is building, refurnishing and preparing about 16 airbases throughout Iraq to serve as permanent bases for American forces. Economically, and especially in regard to oil, there are plans to exercise influence, if not control, over the industry. Through much-publicised plans to privatise the Iraqi economy, the US government and big companies are planning to purchase large parts of the oil industry and other economic interests in Iraq.

But the more real and important issue will be the conduct of the new government. Will it be truly independent? If the US pulls out of the big cities, will the new government forces be ready to defend themselves, the government and the people? Will it have the liberty to manage and spend the oil revenues? These are the most pressing questions that face the administration that will emerge from these flawed elections.

The US, meanwhile, will face two agonising alternatives, either to get involved directly in the post-election scenario, at very high risk, or to leave the country to fall under the control of a hostile opposition.

The writer is professor of politics at the University of Baghdad and secretary general of the Arab Association of Political Science