An Election of and by Ghosts

Will Iraq's invisible candidates and voters make a crucial first step toward a democratic state?

By Rami G. Khouri
Rami G. Khouri is executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.

Los Angeles Times

January 28, 2005

BEIRUT — There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful and worried about Sunday's election for an interim parliament in Iraq.

First, the bad news: Every possible result is riddled with problems. The election is hampered from the start by its illegitimate lineage. It has been spawned by an American-led military invasion, incubated in an American-led military occupation and administration, designed by a mildly credible combination of Iraqi and U.N. officials working — literally and figuratively — under the gun of the United States, and administered by an interim Iraqi administration that has "made in Washington" stamped all over it.

There will be no certain, easy or quick solutions to the postelection dilemma the U.S. has created for itself in Iraq. If the U.S. military stays too long, it generates ever more political resentment and armed resistance — in Iraq, the Middle East and the world. If the U.S. military departs too soon, it risks unleashing a civil war and possible partition of Iraq, which spells trouble for the entire region.

If Washington pulls off an orderly and clean election, it may create a Shiite-dominated, Iran-friendly political system that frightens many of its Sunni-run or secular Arab neighbors (as Jordan's Washington-friendly King Abdullah II has already said publicly). Some in this region also worry about postelection tensions between Iraqis and Iranians, given the historical sensitivities between Persian and Arab Shiites.

It is also bad news that this election is being conducted by ghosts and invisible partisans — it's the world's first virtual election, of and by those who cannot be seen or touched. Most candidates and potential voters are not making themselves clearly known in public, for fear of being killed. Likewise, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite cleric who will probably dominate the country's political, religious and moral life, is rarely if ever seen in public.

As Condoleezza Rice acknowledged, nobody said this was going to be easy. But nobody said either that the symbol of Iraqi democracy would be Casper the Friendly Ghost.

There is also good news. This election is potentially the most significant step to date on the road to liberation, sovereignty and normalcy for Iraqis. Even if things go wrong Sunday, this could be the moment in which Iraq starts moving toward credible statehood.

To accurately assess the effect of the vote, we must first recognize that this is just one step on a long road of transformation for Iraq, the U.S. and the Middle East. It is not the defining, all-or-nothing event. In other words, relax. Life will go on Monday morning, with the same basic challenges facing Iraq and the U.S.

Second, we must judge the vote's effectiveness based on how it affects core political principles. We must not get hopelessly sidetracked or lost in the American tendency to count things, such as the number of attacks, voters, arrests, raids, schools repainted and troops trained (though the tabulation-happy United States peculiarly does not count the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died and been injured since the U.S.-led invasion began).

There are three tests that can be used to determine whether the election is just another romantically naive and frighteningly amateurish American-engineered farce in Iraq or a meaningful stage in building a democratic state.

•  Will it result in a legitimate, indigenously chosen Iraqi government, as opposed to the noncredible, foreign-appointed interim authorities in place since April 2003? If most Iraqis see the elected parliament and the new cabinet as legitimate, this will finally spur faster economic development and more effective security forces that could slowly restore normalcy to everyday life.

•  Will the newly elected parliament promulgate a credible constitutional power-sharing formula for national governance that can be agreed on by all major segments of the citizenry? Compromise formulas cobbled together to date have consistently left one or more of the major demographic groups in Iraq grumbling, demanding veto authority, threatening to abstain or secede, or directly, even violently, challenging any American authority.

•  Will the election provide Iraqis with sufficient political legitimacy and security for them to set a schedule for the departure of American troops? As long as the troops stay in Iraq, the governing authority in Baghdad will always be seen as a puppet manipulated by Washington.

It will be clear soon after the election whether most Iraqis view the new parliament and government as legitimate on these terms — and whether it is an incremental but crucial step forward in a slow transition to an Iraq that is peaceful, democratic and, most important, liberated and sovereign.