Will democracy be tarred and feathered?

By Zvi Bar'el


Shvat 21, 5765

"Fellow Shi'ite (or Sunni or Kurd), we assume because of your current ethnic association that you will be voting Shi'ite in the coming election. If you do not wish to vote, please return this letter signed, otherwise your vote will be recorded according to our assumptions."

This letter - paraphrasing the letters that credit card companies send their customers - was suggested by screenwriter Lee Kalcheim ("All in the Family") and satirist Marshall Efron in the Boston Globe ("Voting, Iraqi style," January 26) as a way of enabling Iraqis who are afraid of venturing to the polls to vote without risking their lives.

The two also suggest taking the Iraqi citizens to the United States - "say Florida or Ohio, where they can vote in absolute safety" - and then taking them back to Iraq.

Perhaps a more effective way is to send Iraqi citizens "who wish to martyr themselves for the democratic cause" to vote at "flamboyantly marked polling places," which will probably be targeted for terrorist attacks, while the rest of the citizens cast their ballot at "secretly designated fruit and vegetable stands."

Mocking the elections that will take place in Iraq today - the first such vote in half a century - is not directed at democracy. It is ridiculing the sanctification of the democratic process, even when it is a circus. Even if the elections pass relatively smoothly, without unusually harsh attacks - that is, up to 50 casualties per attack - and even if the voting rate is higher than 40 percent, this is not a democratic process, certainly not a political remedy to a convulsive patient like Iraq.

Iraq will continue to be an occupied state after the elections. This election campaign, which itself is not free of profound corruption and political threats, will not replace the present regime's system - distributing large benefits to cronies. It may even lead to the state's breaking up into at least two factions: the Kurds, who act like an independent state anyway, and all the rest, including an unsatisfied Sunni minority.

The Iraqi "democracy" will not be able to ensure the vision that every democratic rule brings with it: real rights for minorities, protection for women, freedom of expression and, mainly, the citizens' real participation in government. If the political predictions are realized, then any parliament established after these elections will be subjected to the pressures of Shia spiritual leaders. Just like these elections were arranged according to the timetable dictated by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the prime spiritual reference for Shia Muslims, and the format he approved.

Another threat was implied by Jordan's King Abdullah, who warned three weeks ago of the establishment of a "Shia crescent," which will lean on Iran and Iraq. He was not referring to the religious threat but to the fear of a new strategic constellation in the region, which would not be conducive to creating a more liberal Middle East and serve as a basis for violent, uncontrollable developments.

The democracy in Iraq could find itself very quickly in the predicament of the democracy in Afghanistan: an elected government that does not rule the state and is forced to give up parts of its powers to local strongmen who are running a state within a state. This situation enabled the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan.

U.S. President George W. Bush will today explain to the nation the historic importance of the elections in Iraq. He will try to persuade other Middle East states and leaders to adopt this way. It is all too convenient to adopt this call and bandy the Iraqi example as the beginning of a new order. It would be better to wait. Iraq consists of all the components required to tar and feather the term democracy.