Making Sense of Iraq's Vote

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Shiites bearing posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani celebrate on Monday in Baghdad's Sadr City following Iraq's election

Iraq's first competitive election in a half-century — which, despite its serious flaws, marked an historic breakthrough for the democratic principle in Iraq—has been claimed by President Bush as Exhibit A in his global mission to spread freedom. "Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," the President said Sunday, greeting news reports that voter turnout had been greater than expected. Expectations, of course, had been gloomy, as the raging insurgency had effectively precluded most campaign activity, and voters on Sunday went into ballot booths to select from parties and coalitions whose candidates had, for the most part, been kept a secret.

Once the dust settled, in fact, the Iraqi Electoral Commission's initial estimate of a 72 percent turnout was revised down to 57 percent of eligible voters — later around 60 percent — with the ethnic breakdown as expected: Strong voter turnout among the long-marginalized Shiites and Kurds, who together comprise over 80 percent of the population; poor turnout among the Sunni Arabs in whose name the insurgency fights. Still, the very fact of Iraq's next government being chosen at the ballot box entrenches the principle that no government can claim legitimacy in Iraq without a democratic popular mandate. There can be no underestimating the epic significance of that principle in a country that has, for most of its history, been run by autocrats and thugs who derived authority either from the backing of foreign powers, or from their own ability to inflict pain on fellow citizens.

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Sistani's victory

But even as President Bush claimed vindication for his Iraq strategy in the spectacle of millions of Iraqis braving terror and intimidation to go to the polls, the real author of Sunday's election —Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — confined himself to a simply thanking voters for turning out, and expressing regret that his own Iranian birth prevented him from joining them. It may be easily forgotten in the post-election spin that Sunday's vote was not the Bush administration's idea—quite the contrary. The U.S. had never intended for Iraqis to democratically choose the body that would write their new constitution; Washington had envisaged an election only after a constitution had been written by a body appointed by, and under the tutelage of the U.S.

Initially, the plan had been to hand power to returning exiles after toppling Saddam Hussein. When the exiles proved too unpopular, the U.S. then sought to have its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council write the new constitution. Even after the IGC proved incapable, the Bush administration consistently rejected Sistani's demand for democratic elections. Instead, U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer proposed, that a constitution-making body be appointed by a series of caucuses comprising handpicked elites around the country. Sistani was having none of it. He insisted on democratic elections, used his influence among Shiites on the Governing Council to block Bremer's scheme, and then brought his supporters onto the streets to warn that anything short of democracy would be deemed illegitimate by the Shiite majority.

And it was this pressure from the Iranian-born Ayatollah—certainly an unlikely Tom Paine figure —that forced the administration to scrap its own plans for Iraq and agree to hold elections by the end of January 2005. Still, once the decision was made, President Bush stuck to his guns despite repeated entreaties at home and abroad—and from a number of Iraqis that had worked closely with Washington—to postpone the poll. And the election could mark a major turning point for the U.S. mission in Iraq.

From here, it gets complicated

Once the results are known—the wait could be up to ten days —the new National Assembly will be seated, and begin the tortuous process of choosing a government that begins with electing a president and two vice presidents by two thirds majority, and then requiring them to reach unanimity among themselves on a prime minister, who must then appoint a government for approval by the assembly. The election was contested by broad coalition lists, but once their representatives are seated according to the share of vote they won on Sunday theres nothing to stop individual legislators or factions making common cause with those of election-day rivals and creating new alignments. Suffice to say that it will likely be at least a month, if not more, before the makeup of the new government is settled. Still, that government will be the first that the Bush administration has had to deal with in Iraq that has not been of its making. And indications are that it might not be smooth sailing.

Most reporting from polling stations suggests that the big winners, as expected, will be the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, backed by Sistani. But the extent of its dominance remains to be seen. There were indications in the weeks preceding the election that the coalition of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was reeling in the UIA's lead, drawing support not only from a middle class secular constituency but also from Shiites wary of giving clerics political authority. Allawi may have been helped by what appears to have been a de facto boycott by supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, on whose votes the UIA may have been counting. Indeed, if the 57 percent turnout figure is accurate, then the high Kurdish turnout and the fact that there was a substantial if small vote among Sunnis would suggest that a significant number of Shiites stayed away. UIA leaders remain confident, however, that they'd carried a comfortable majority among the Shiites.

But whatever the precise makeup of the government, much of the campaigning —to the extent that there was any—by the major parties presented voting as a means of ending "the occupation," the unflattering shorthand used by Iraqis across much of the political spectrum (including members of Allawi's own cabinet) to describe the U.S. presence. Opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Iraqi voters want the U.S. to leave immediately after the election, and a new government, whatever its makeup, will be expected to respond to that sentiment.

'End the occupation? '

Ironically, ending the U.S. presence is a point of consensus between Iraq's new political class and the insurgents who kept their promise to bloody the poll with a steady stream of attacks in the months preceding it, and which killed at least 41 people on election day despite the elaborate security procedures in place. Still, the death toll would almost certainly have been considerably higher had not banning all vehicles from the roads prevented car bombings. But the insurgents are almost certain to redouble their efforts in the coming weeks, as if to show that the election hasn't altered the strategic reality. And as long as turnout out in Sunni areas was low and the community questions the legitimacy of its outcome, they'll have achieved their basic strategic objective for the campaign season.

For the Kurds, election day was as much an opportunity to claim their stake in a new Iraq as to affirm their reluctance to be part of Iraq at all. In tents outside official polling stations, a movement demanding a referendum on Kurdish independence collected signatures with permission of the main Kurdish political parties, whose voters proclaim their desire for independence even as party leaders look to arrange the next best thing in the form of maximum autonomy from Baghdad. The flashpoint, of course, comes in cities where Kurds and Arabs (and in some cases Turkmen) compete for control, none more so than Kirkuk — the mainstream Kurdish parties are claiming as their own a city forcibly "Arabized" by Saddam Hussein, setting up a clash not only with resident Arabs and Turkomen but also with neighboring Turkey which is alarmed by any manifestation of Kurdish nationalism on its border. And right now, it's difficult to see how a new government, whose makeup is not yet determined, can stop tensions in Kirkuk from boiling over in scramble for post-election power.

If getting the U.S. out is one point of consensus between the radical Sunni Arab insurgents and the moderate Shiite Arab Islamists that look set to emerge with the largest share of Sundays vote, they also share a common hostility to Kurdish secessionism. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has made no secret of his hostility to the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law — the interim constitution crafted under U.S. direction — that gives the Kurds an effective veto over a new constitution. The Kurd-Arab distinction may yet prove as powerful a destabilizing factor as the Sunni-Shiite one in the months ahead.

Iraq, or rather a large part of it, has spoken, no matter how imperfect the process. And as a result, the country's future appears to be up for grabs, with all players forced to rewrite their scripts. Now, it gets interesting.