America's unique version of democracy

If you're taken off to Abu Ghraib for the day, are you still entitled to a postal vote?

Mark Steel

The Independent

27 January 2005

When I was 13, I took part in a charming election for a "school council" which, the headmaster said, showed he was willing to let students help to run the school. So those of us elected went to the first meeting with a list of things we thought should change, and the headmaster yelled that we weren't allowed to discuss any of this. Instead we should decide where to go for the school day out in the summer.

Those quaint and innocent days are being happily brought back to me by these elections in Iraq. The minutes of the first meeting of this newly elected body may well be: "The Chair thanked Mr Siddiqi for raising the issue of the 100,000 civilians killed by the army occupying the country. But he added that unfortunately that was all a little bit outside the brief of the meeting so could they please stick to discussing the arrangements for the coach trip to Hastings."

They won't have any say on who runs the country, owns the country, or arms the country. So it won't be a governing body, it will have the powers of a parish council, making pronouncements such as, "With regard to the incessant artillery fire behind the Burger King, we can't alter the military situation. But we can come up with suggestions for how to deal with the congestion this is causing at the traffic lights on Rumsfeld Street. Now, Mrs Aziz has proposed a special lane for suicide bombers, with hefty fines for anyone blocking their way, and I for one think that's jolly clever. But most importantly, it's that time of year where we invite all those who wish to have stalls for the Baghdad Village Fayre. And I can tell you that Mr Mohammed has very kindly offered once again to take responsibility for the 'guess the weight of the hostage' competition."

The over-riding issues in Iraq are the occupation and the mass privatisation, which the new body will be unable to have any say in. Half of Britain goes berserk if the European Union interferes with British law by recategorising whelks or insisting we can't set fire to asylum-seekers. So imagine what the Tories and the Daily Mail would say if we were told that, in line with EU regulations, our parliament no longer had the right to oppose the French riding tanks through our cities or the Italians swiping all our oil.

Clearly there are difficulties in staging these elections. For example, if you're taken off to Abu Ghraib to be tortured for the day, are you still entitled to a postal vote? But the practical problems aren't the main obstacles.

The elections only make sense in the context of the whole war, having been set up by the Americans as part of their process of controlling the region. It's as if a pack of burglars came into your house, robbed you, then set up an election so you could vote for which member of the family filled out the form for the insurance.

Or perhaps the American rulers truly yearn for democracy, as George Bush said in his inaugaration speech. This is the view of one Tory, who wrote that Bush was "saying, quite explicitly, that America was abandoning its previous policy of supporting Third World dictators who happened to provide a convenient bulwark against the Soviet enemy."

So - up until this month, the United States had to support dictators because there was still a threat from the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the Soviet Union ceased to exist 13 years ago. And I suppose they'll stop backing dictators in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan when they no longer fear a threat from Alexander the Great.

If the US rulers have discovered a fondness for democracy, this would surprise many people in Venezuela, where Bush's crowd supported three attempted coups to overthrow the democratically elected government. Maybe this change of policy is being worked through in alphabetical order.

For America, democracy in countries they influence is like taking part in a quiz show. They set the question, and if you come up with the wrong answer they say, "I'm sorry, that's not what I've got written on the card," and you have to make way for someone else.

In the last poll, over 80 per cent of the country stated they wanted the Americans to leave, whereas the Americans have announced plans for up to 14 permanent military bases. Imagine if the British had said to George Washington in 1776, "OK, we agree to let you choose your own government. But it's for the best if we organise the whole thing, and to make sure you're able to be completely independent, we'll bring 14 regiments and keep them here forever."

So on the night of the elections in Iraq, there ought to be the shortest Election Special programme ever. Peter Snow will yell, "On the board behind me is a huge map of the country. There are hundreds of candidates, so let's see what happens if this one over here gets 86 per cent, or if he gets absolutely none at all. All this region, from right up here to way down there, will still be run by the Americans. So there's the result - goodnight."