Iraq: A vote for democracy?

In post-election Iraq, ethnicity, religion and tribal affiliation still matter more than anything else.

iraq 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
iraq 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A few meters outside the entrance to a polling station in Kirkuk's Kadasiyeh neighborhood, Amr Khadum, 59, a Sunni Arab, declared he would cast his ballot for the 667 list, the Sunni-affiliated National Iraqi Front coalition. But he wasn't sure why. "I don't know what they stand for," mumbled the hard-of-hearing Khadum. "My nephew told me to vote for them." Khadum was not the only Iraqi who voted in last Thursday's parliamentary elections with little notion of what he was doing. In a recent op-ed in the New York Sun, Nibras Kazimi captured the essence of the problem: "Iraq did not hold an election last week - it held a census. Shias voted for a Shia list, Sunnis for a Sunni list, and Kurds turned out for a Kurdish list." It was no surprise, then, when howls of voter fraud were resonating even before the polls closed in what were hailed as Iraq's landmark elections for its first four-year parliament. Friends, cronies and cousins were called out to vote, proxy-vote or stuff ballot boxes not for the sake of Iraq, but for tribe and kin. The grumbling has begun flooding Baghdad as well. The complaints were quiet at first - the justified pride of pulling off a bloodless election with a 70 percent voter turnout as of yet unabated. But now, a week later, Iraq's Sunni Arabs, as well as former prime minister Iyad Allawi and his secular multi-ethnic party, are accusing the Shi'ite parties of fraud. So far, the Iraqi government has registered some 1,000 complaints, 20 of which are serious. Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Sunni Arab alliance of the Iraqi Accordance Front, listed several of these, including voting centers failing to open, shortages in election materials and reports of multiple voting, the Associated Press reported. All of the irregularities are based on the sectarian issue. Shi'ites strongarmed other Shi'ites to vote for the Shi'ite coalition - called the National Iraqi Alliance, or list 555. The Kurds wheeled out, flew in from abroad, and carried any able body to vote. Rumors of children, even the dead, casting ballots for the Kurdish list - 730 - were rife. Pundits say this symbolizes a deepening ethnic divide that the Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds have been living with since Iraq was created by Western powers in 1916. The diamond-shaped country we know today was carved out of the southwestern Asian deserts in the Sykes-Pichot agreement. To secure Britain's oil interests, among the three groups in Iraq - in addition to the Turkomen, the Assyians, Chaldeans, and others - Her Majesty's government chose a minority, the Sunnis, as the rulers. The Kurds and Shi'ites bridled them from the start. They've never stopped. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have died for their independence; hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites died fighting Saddam. For the past three years, Iraqis have whispered that theirs is an artificial state. During a week spent in Irbil, this reporter did not see a single Iraqi flag or insignia. Not even the Iraqi Army stationed at the Mele Omar camp outside Irbil had one. IN POST-ELECTION Iraq, ethnicity, religion and tribal affiliation still matter more than anything else. Prof. Ofra Bengio of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University attributes this to Iraq still being too much of a tribal society - "not nearly mature enough for democracy, despite the earnest wishes of the White House." Even in the Kurdish areas, she says, "which are way ahead of the rest of Iraq when it comes to democracy," one can see how far the country has to go. On election day in the Kurdish "cultural capital" of Sulemaniya, for example, children waved ballot ink-stained fingers outside the Diyarbakir School. One 12-year-old said he had voted in place of his father. But since the Kurdish government had declared a week-long holiday, one wondered why the father himself hadn't come out to vote. "We tried to create a good example, but our civil war in 1992 [ending in 1998] stunted our democracy," says Dr. Sa'edi Barzdinji, Professor of Law at Irbil's Saladdin University and until December 15th a Kurdish representative to Iraq's National Assembly, its parliament. Too many years of Saddam and too little exposure to the ways of the West are to blame, he explains. In Iraq - and in Kurdistan, where Barzdinji says the Kurds have been fighting occupying rulers since the 12th century - power is the only rule that counts. This becomes apparent when listening to Iraqi Kurds - a completely different ethnic group from Arabs - on the streets. They say they are proud to see the portrait of one of their "strongman" leaders hanging in shop windows, hotels and taxis. Knowing that someone fights "all those anti-Kurdish people in Baghdad," is democracy, they say. During the week before the elections, Sulemaniya was buzzing with parties, yet none of the residents seemed to know why they were celebrating. One man hanging out of a moving vehicle called out that democracy means, "being able to speak Kurdish. Having security, even independence, one day." The majority Shi'ites and Iraq's former rulers, the minority Sunnis, both want to rule Iraq. But the Kurds want to gain control of Kirkuk and then leave Iraq. "Whenever the situation is suitable, once we have made the local and international preparations, we will declare independence," said Dr. Salam Khoshnaw, a Kurdish politician and professor of literature. The Kurds have for centuries carefully navigated the intricacies of Iraqi politics. It is doubtful whether the country could hold together without their tempering touch. Bengio is convinced the sectarian fighting - the suicide bombings against Shi'ite mosques by Sunnis and the kidnapping and torture of Sunni Arab terror suspects by Shi'ite militias - constitutes a "civil war. I know of no other term to call it." In spite of the elections? "Elections are just the cellophane covering the real stuff. The reality is that Iraq is not developing well," says Bengio. "It is coming apart at the seams." Whether or not Kurdistan splits from Iraq, or the Sunnis continue to blow up Shi'ites in their mosques despite the elections, Barzdinji, at 70-something, is optimistic. "My son criticizes me," he says, pausing to light a cigarette. "His vision is totally different from mine. He is so critical of Iraq's leaders and that is good. [But] we are still in the beginning, we need time to build a democracy."