February 3, 2009

Iraqi elections - a step in the return to normalcy?

Iraqi ballot - click for larger imageIraqi ballot

The recent Iraqi elections, despite the low turnout, may have some good news for the long-term stability of the country. Unlike 2005, the Sunnis did not boycott the elections this time, turning out in large numbers to ensure they were not left out of the government. The decision to not have voting in the contested area of Kirkuk is a problem, but overall, the elections were completed in a relatively calm and orderly manner.

When all the votes are tallied, it appears that the winners will be the more secular parties and blocks, at the expense of the Islamic parties in both the Sunni and Shi'a communities. This is not surprising. The Iraqis, be they Arab, Kurd, Assyrian, Turkomen or Yazidis, have generally favored secular governments. Despite the brutality of the Ba'th regime under Saddam Husayn, the Iraqis supported the secular nature of the party, including women's rights, universal education and freedom of religion. It would appear that support of these ideals is on the rise.

The losers are the Islamic parties, particularly the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Dawa' party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, despite being a Shi'a religious party, fared well since al-Maliki recast his image from being a Shi'a leader to being an Iraqi nationalist. His willingness to clamp down on Shi'a militias in Baghdad and al-Basrah gained him support among secular Iraqis, including the Sunnis who at one time feared a possible "Shi'a majority tyranny."

The low turnout - 51 percent - is a bit surprising. Analysts predicted a turnout of about 60 percent. There were some glitches as some potential voters were turned away from the polls because their names were not on the voter registers. Of course, these kinds of administrative issues are to be expected in a country which has virtually no experience with free and democratic elections. Similar errors occur in our elections as well. Florida and Minnesota come to mind....

According to journalist Leila Fadel, the Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, Iraqi voters did not turn out in larger numbers because they feel "disenchantment with a democracy that, so far, has brought them very little."

Very little? The mere fact that they are having free elections might be considered something. How about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right not to vote (under Saddam Husayn, voting - for him - was mandatory)? It reminds me of a demonstrator with sign in Baghdad shortly after the return to Iraqi sovereignty
that read, "Where is my freedom?" How ironic - the fact that he was able to stand there with the sign was his answer.

Iraqis voting for secular leaders is a good sign - maybe this is one step toward normalcy.