Have the elections saved the occupation?


For most activists in the global anti-war movement, it’s obvious that the US-engineered January 30 elections in Iraq have not ushered in a new era of democracy nor fundamentally changed the nature of the brutal, US-led occupation. But opponents of the occupation must consider to what extent the Iraq elections have shored up Washington’s imperial project.

Certainly the White House and its allies, like Australian Prime Minister John Howard, have been crowing about the elections as an unqualified victory. US President George Bush claimed that by “participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists”.

Bush’s claim seemed to be supported by the corporate media’s coverage of the elections, during which Western television “news” broadcasts were awash with Iraqis ecstatically casting their ballots.

However, in a January 29 panel on CNN’s International Correspondents program, Julian Manyon, Britain’s ITV Baghdad correspondent, revealed that Western TV reporters covering the election were being “limited to filming at only five polling stations”, out of 5244. When the list of “approved” polling stations was published, Manyon added, reporters found out that “four of those five polling stations are actually in Shia areas, and therefore by definition will shed very little light on whether Sunnis vote or not”.

According to the Reuters news agency, while there were 63,000 polling booths throughout Iraq, there were only 33,763 Iraqi election monitors and 622 international monitors. Manyon told CNN: “It’s very difficult to see how these elections can live up to international standards in terms of dispassionate supervision and policing of the polls.” However, for the bulk of the Western corporate “news” media’s reporting, particularly on television, most commentators stuck to the White House’s script of January 30 being the “dawn” of Iraqi “democracy”.

Explaining a fraction of the Iraq poll’s “irregular” features, Manyon gave an example of the situation in Mosul, “where … we now discover, because the Iraqi employees of the election organisation have deserted en masse, it’s American soldiers who will be transporting the ballot boxes around when they are full of votes. This is really very far from ideal, and if it were happening in any other country — I mean, one could mention Ukraine, for example — there would be a wild chorus of international protest.”

Fraud and intimidation It’s clear that the elections weren’t the unqualified “victory” for Washington that Bush has claimed. Iraqi poll officials initially claimed that 72% of eligible voters took part in the ballot. But, as an article by the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service reported: “Officials later retracted that, saying some election officials in the provinces were carried away by the euphoria of the moment.”

The official estimate of the turnout is now 57%. However, this figure is based on registered, not eligible, Iraqi voters and is distorted by the high proportion of Kurdish voters in Iraq’s northern region. Outside Iraq, only about 22% of potential expatriate voters cast a ballot.

During the polling there were reports of intimidation and the voting process was riddled with evidence of possible fraud. Independent Baghdad-based US journalist Dahr Jamail reported in an article for the Inter Press Service the day after the ballot: “Voting in Baghdad was linked with receipt of food rations … [and] many Iraqis said Monday that their names were marked on a list provided by the government agency that provides monthly food rations before they were allowed to vote.”

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul McGeough reported on January 31 that in Baghdad Iraqis accused of being former members of the now-outlawed Baath Party, which had more than a million members before the US invasion, were being threatened with execution unless they voted.

Voter turnout was predictably highest in areas with large Shiite and Kurdish populations, while a boycott called by the Association of Muslim Scholars ensured a low turnout in Sunni Arab areas. But while there is no doubt that fraud and intimidation were an important feature of the elections, there is also no doubt that large numbers of Iraqis willingly took part in Washington’s electoral charade.

Vietnam parallel Does that mean that Washington can be confident it has pulled the rug out from under Iraqi opponents of the occupation? Back in 1967, a September 4 New York Times article, widely circulated on the internet since the Iraqi elections, reported: “United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.”

The NYT article reported that “83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong…

“The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the national election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.”

Peter Grose, the article’s author, reported that a “successful election” had been seen by Washington as key to “encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam”.

“The purpose of the voting”, Grose wrote, “was to give legitimacy to the Saigon government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Deim was overthrown by a military junta… The fact that the backing of the electorate has gone to the generals who have been ruling South Vietnam for the last two years does not, in the [US] administration’s view, diminish the significance of the constitutional step that has been taken.”

The parallels with Iraq are not hard to see. And as the US capitalist ruling class is well aware, just under eight years after the “success” of the 1967 election, on April 30, 1975, the last US soldiers fled Saigon as the forces of the Vietnamese national liberation movement entered the city, signalling an historic defeat for US imperialism. As in Iraq, the South Vietnam ballot had been preceded by an extensive campaign of military terror by US forces.

Of course, the comparison has its limits — unlike the Iraqi resistance forces, the Vietnamese national liberation movement had a unified and revolutionary socialist leadership.

Anti-occupation vote Moreover, the “success” of Iraq’s elections was largely the product of the illusory belief among many Shiite voters — deliberately fostered before the ballot by Shiite candidates and the Shiite clerical hierarchy — that the elections would lead to a quick end to the US-led occupation.

This is particularly so for supporters of the United Iraqi Alliance, the ticket led by top Shia clerics and aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most respected Shiite cleric in Iraq. Until a few days before the election, the UIA, which is likely to have won the lion’s share of the vote, had called for Washington to announce a “timetable” for the withdrawal of US and allied foreign troops from Iraq.

An analysis of the elections by Phyllis Bennis at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, published on February 1, observed: “The individual Iraqis who came out to vote clearly were very brave and eager to reclaim control of their country. They were voting for their hopes, for secure streets so children can go to school, for electricity and clean water, for jobs, and mostly for an end to the US occupation.”

She added, however, that the elections “are unlikely to achieve any of those goals; the violence is likely to continue, perhaps even increase. The US occupation is still the problem, not the solution, in Iraq, and only bringing the US troops home, not imposing elections under continuing occupation, will lead to an end of violence.”

A February 1 article by Jamail agreed with Bennis’s conclusion. He wrote: “Every Iraqi I have spoken with who voted explained that they believe the National Assembly which will be formed soon will signal an end to the occupation. And they expect the call for a withdrawing of foreign forces from their country to come sooner rather than later.”

Jamail’s and Bennis’s assessment is confirmed by a Zogby International poll conducted January 19-23, which found that 69% of Shiite Iraqis and 82% of Sunnis “favor US forces withdrawing either immediately or after an elected government is in place”.

Once it becomes clear to those who voted in the January 30 elections that they have been deceived, that the elections will not quickly end the US-led occupation of their country, Washington and its Iraqi puppet regime will face a tremendous public backlash, greatly strengthening all the active forces of resistance to the occupation.

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