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The Poll Watcher’s Guide to the Iraqi Election


Most of us are pretty certain that the Iraq elections this weekend will not change much — the U.S. will continue its attempt to pacify Iraq and the resistance will continue resisting it. The level of violence will remain high, together with the unemployment rate; the support for the American presence will remain low, together with the amount of reconstruction.

 

But if the election is not an important event, it is nevertheless an important indicator of all sorts of things about the situation in Iraq. So those of us who are forever trying to figure out what is going on have a good opportunity for diagnostics based on what happens that day and afterward.

 

Here are a few of the key indicators that we should all be looking at.

 

Voter Turnout

 

All the media are talking about voter turnout, but to sort out the noise from the substance, let’s make a list of significant measures.

 

·         Look for overall turnout above or below 50%. Because of the Sunni boycott and the threats against voting officials, polling places and even voters, the U.S. is hoping that half of the 14 million voters will turn out. A lot less is a major defeat, substantially more is a great victory for the U.S.

 

·         Will the Shia turn out in large numbers? Everyone knows that very few Sunni and virtually all the Kurds will vote. The wild card is the Shia, and the U.S. is banking on about 70% turnout in Shia areas like Sadr City, Basra and even Najaf. Many independent reporters are saying, however, that large numbers of Shia are either alienated or support Moqtada al Sadr’s claim that no elections are meaningful until the U.S. leaves. So if turnout in the South (e.g., Najaf, Basra) is 50% or below, this is very bad news for the U.S.

 

·         Will any Sunni’s vote? The Sunnis are the ones who support both the insurgency and the boycott. Turnout will be low in Sunni cities, particularly cities with ongoing battles, like Mosul, Ramadi, and Samarra (and almost non-existent in Falluja). But how low? The U.S. claims that most Sunnis want to vote, but are intimidated by the threat of violence (see below). The resistance claims that Sunnis support the boycott. So anything over about 25% turnout in key hotspots is a win for the U.S.

 

·         What about Baghdad. Iyad Allawi has said he expects “up to 70%” turnout in Baghdad, but that is almost certainly another gross overstatement by the Iraqi Interim Prime Minister. Baghdad is mostly Sunni and it is one of the places that the Interior Minister said was too dangerous to hold elections. But it is also the one Sunni city where the U.S. is seriously trying to defeat the boycott, and many of the Sunnis there are secular and therefore less committed to the boycott. So if turnout in the Sunni areas of Baghdad (about two-thirds of the city) is above 50%, the U.S. will have a great victory. On the other hand, if it is below 30%, it will be a defeat for the U.S.

 

Violence

 

There will be plenty of violence on election day, but that won’t make it much different from any other day in recent Iraqi history. Even if it is much more violent than usual, it will still be well within the range of expectations, given the determination of at least a large segment of the resistance to disrupt the elections. However, there are a couple of patterns to look out for that could be highly significant.

 

·         Are voters targeted? Until now, the violence associated with the resistance campaign against the elections has been directed almost exclusively at police and government officials (a fact that the U.S. media has failed to highlight). The few polling places that have been attacked have been empty. The U.S. press has been advertising the threats against voters issued by some elements of the resistance, promising to kill anyone who tries to vote. These threats are not supported by many other elements of the resistance (e.g., the Association of Muslim Scholars, a key clerical leadership group), who support attacking only the Occupation and its direct allies (government officials, police and military, and people who work for the occupying armies). If the threats against ordinary civilians who try to vote are enacted on election day, it will indicate substantial strength for the terrorist wing of the resistance and it will be a setback for the AMS and its allies who advocate winning over civilians.

 

·         Are Shia targeted? So far the anti-election campaign has been concentrated in Sunni areas. There have been a few attacks on Shia clerical leaders who have urged their followers to vote, but they represent a small proportion of the anti-election violence and these attacks have been denounced by other elements of the resistance (again, the AMS is the key group denouncing such acts). If there is substantial violence in Shia areas on election day, this will indicate the strength of sectarian elements in the resistance who see the Shia as their enemy, as contrasted with the bulk of the resistance who attack only the Occupation and its supporters.

 

Outcomes

 

We already know that the election will not dislodge the U.S. from its command of the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, the election will be an important indicator of relative strength for various political tendencies. Pay particular attention to these results

 

·         Will the Ali al Sistani loyalists dominate the new parliament? The slate put together by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Unified Iraqi Coalition, will surely get the most votes, but will they be able to command a majority of the new parliament? If so, this is a big victory for Sistani and it may mean that the parliament will be able to speak with a united voice that could (if it wanted to) resist (at least rhetorically) U.S. policy (see below). Granted that the top of this slate (like virtually all the major slates, is dominated by quislings who have worked with the occupation and supported U.S. actions like the annihilation of the Najaf Old City and the entirety of Falluja; nevertheless the logic of the election will allow Sistani and his allies to push the parliament toward a stance more consonant with their (at least moderate) critical stance toward the Occupation.

 

·         Will Allawi be strong enough to retain a leadership position. Allawi’s slate, The Iraqi List, will not even approach the strength of Sistani’s slate, but he (and the U.S. ) is hoping for a good enough showing to project him as a viable leader. If he is far behind, then it will be a repudiation of the interim government, and a setback for the U.S., and it could mean the end of his role as the most visible representative of the pro-Occupation forces.

 

·         Will the Kurds win Kirkuk. Kirkuk is one of the few areas where sectarian war is really possible. It has always had strong Kurdish, Turkman, and Sunni Arab communities, but this was made all the more fractious when Saddam engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Kurds and moved several hundred thousand Sunni Arabs into the city. Now the Kurds are trying to drive the Sunnis out, annex Kirkuk, make it the Kurdish capital, and lay claim to the oil that lies underneath it. If the election results in a Kurdish majority in the provincial parliament, you can expect the Kurds to become much more aggressive in their campaign, and this may result in genuine ethnic war like that often predicted by U.S. leaders.

 

First Actions of the New Parliament

 

Even before they begin to write a new constitution, the parliament will have to deal with two issues that could make the United States extremely uncomfortable.

 

·         Will the new parliament select an pro-American prime minister. The U.S. is maneuvering behind the scenes for the new parliament to select Iyad Allawi to continue as Prime Minister, using its control of resources as a carrot and a stick. However, if Allawi flounders in the election, they will have to abandon him and select someone else with a modicum of credibility. If the Shia gain their expected dominance, however, they could select someone who is independent of the U.S. and create a major social control problem for Occupation, particularly if the new leader chooses to consistently criticize U.S. actions.

 

·         Will the new parliament demand that the U.S. withdraw its troops? Ali al Sistani’s Unified Iraqi Coalition has as its first platform plank that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal. Most of the other slates have similar demands, so it is almost inevitable that the new parliament will have an overwhelming majority that was elected on a platform of U.S. withdrawal. The handful of Sadrists in the parliament will demand that this be the first order of business and therefore we might see an immediate controversy within the parliament, and a major embarrassment for the U.S. if they decide to proceed with such a demand. The key to the outcome will be this: if the parliament demands a definite timetable, the U.S. will be caught in a major dilemma (since Bush promised to honor such a request). But if the parliament calls for withdrawal when the Iraqi military is “ready to handle security,” then the U.S. will have dodged the bullet. (In the latter case, look out for a huge reaction from the Sadrists (see below).)

 

Aftermath of the Election

 

The run-up to this election has featured a number of promises — explicit or subtle — that may be fulfilled once the election is over. So keep your eyes out for these possible developments:

 

·         Will violence decrease? The Occupation and the Interim Iraqi Government has been saying that the recent fighting is largely or even exclusively an effort to disrupt the election (they often characterize it as a last gasp of a dying movement). That is, we should expect violence to subside soon after the election is over. Lately they have been hedging their bets on this, but the world will still judge the credibility of the Occupation and its client regime by the level of violence next month.

 

·         Will the U.S. withdraw from offensive operations. There have been systematic leaks from Washington and Baghdad that once the election is over, the U.S. will adopt a much less aggressive military stance, with some hinting that the election will be used for a major drawdown of forces. The key symptom to look for is whether the U.S. discontinues its major drives into rebel held territory, using masses of troops and air power to demolish neighborhoods or whole cities, or instead withdraws into bases and fights only on a reactive basis.

 

·         Will the UN become more active in Iraq. Once the elections are complete, the UN could declare that conditions have been met for it to engage more actively in Iraq. This new activism might even include a role for Germany and France, thus giving the U.S. the sort of international legitimacy they have failed to gain until now. While this may be a long-shot, it is certainly something that the Bush Administration will seek.

 

·         Will the Sadrists stake out a clear anti-government position? Moqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army forces have adopted an ambivalent and ambiguous position toward the election, apparently waiting to see the outcome before deciding how to relate to the new leadership that emerges. One logical stance for them to adopt is that this new government is just as illegitimate as the old one, particularly if the new parliament fails to call for a withdrawal timetable. If the Sadrists do adopt an antagonistic stance toward the new government, it would inevitably mean that the Shia areas would be the scene of major struggle — and maybe renewed guerrilla war. But even if they adopt less drastic tactics, Sadrist opposition to the new government could either create a clear-cut duality in the Shia community between the Sadrist forces and those of al Sistani, or push Sistani into a much more anti-Occupation stance than he has had thus far.

 

 

That’s all folks. This should provide a scorecard for judging the results, even if we have to dig deep into the Ethernet to find the relevant evidence.

 

 

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on ZNet and TomDispatch, and in Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). He can be reached at [email protected].

 

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