Elections are not the problem in Iraq – it’s the parties

A ban on cars on Iraq’s election day makes scenes like this less likely

Tomorrow is election day in Iraq, one of the few days in the year when the chances of getting hit by a car bomb are fairly low. Not because Iraqi terrorists take the day off to go and vote, but because the security operation to protect the polls is arguably the heaviest in the history of democracy.

As well as a huge turn-out by the police and army, whose combined strength of roughly one million is now back at Saddam Hussein-era levels, all polling days since 2005 have had a ban on the use of private vehicles, meaning car bombers have no other traffic to hide in while en route to Paradise. For once, fume-filled Baghdad becomes a quiet, pedestrianised zone, and while it doesn’t stop the odd attack taking place, it calms an otherwise tense day considerably. Some Iraqis wish –  only half jokingly – that every day were election day.

Does this create the conditions for “free and fair elections”, the kind 179 British soldiers gave their lives to bring to the Iraqis? Not entirely. Eleven years after the operation to topple Saddam Hussein, the country is back in the grip of an al-Qaeda-led insurgency, with nearly 9,000 people killed in 2013, the highest death rate since the 2006-8 civil war. Much of western Iraq has also fallen out of government control: today, there will be no polling stations open in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi – the former “graveyards of the Americans” – as they are currently under siege by the Iraqi army.

Overall, though, while Iraq “may not be Surrey” – to borrow a phrase used by British commanders in relation to this month’s elections in Afghanistan – diplomats expect things to pull through, and while there may be a bit of fraud or voter intimidation, it is unlikely to favour any particular group.

Instead, the depressing aspect of these elections lies not with the polls themselves, but with the parties contesting it. At face value, it’s democracy at its most vibrant – the massive ballot papers will feature some 107 different political groupings, from Shia clerics and Sunni tribal sheikhs through to urbane, whisky-drinking secularists from Baghdad.

However, hardly any of them – the big parties included – have proper manifestos. As one diplomat puts it: “The party political broadcasts on the news each night have lots of rhetoric, but no actual programmes of action.” In other words, for all the grand talk on the airwaves about “Unity for Iraq, freedom and justice” or “Justice for Iraq, freedom and unity,” there are few solid pledges for voters to compare parties by, let alone hold them to. If democracy is about a free and informed contest of ideas, this is hardly it.

True, manifestos are just promises, and it would be a naïve British voter who took  Labour or Conservative pledges entirely at their word. But without them, the already imperfect world of electoral politics becomes considerably more so. To see why, one only has to do some straw polling of Iraqis ahead of election days, as I did while covering the elections in 2005 and 2010.

Sadly, it was not hard to find people voting for a certain politician because they had a cousin or relative in the politician’s party, or because they were from the same town or ethnic group. Other more devout Iraqis would vote unquestioningly for religious parties, sometimes because they feared damnation if they didn’t. In fairness, senior clerics have done their best to discourage this practice, but it doesn’t stop people doing it anyway, on a “better safe than sorry” basis.

This kind of voting behaviour does not cast democracy in a good light. After all, it is only by having ideas, as opposed to identities, that parties build up support beyond religious or ethnic groupings, and challenge the dogmas that go with them. Without that wider appeal, democracy simply legitimises a sectarian or ethnic head-count – which is what has been happening to some extent in Iraq.

The country has a rough two-thirds Shia majority, and the Shia coalition of Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, has used that as an automatic passport to power for the last ten years. As such, he has only limited need to reach out the minority Sunnis. Hence the Sunnis’ increasing disaffection with peaceful politics, which is driving some back into the arms of al-Qaeda.

This is, of course, the majority voting system  at work, and like our own, it would be foolish to pretend that the democracies that we have planted abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan would ever be perfect.

But while we fret much about the actual mechanics of their election days, despatching electoral monitors and advising on security issues, it’s considered off-limits to scrutinise whether the parties themselves have filled their side of the bargain. We do not hear the UN or William Hague, for example, congratulating Country X for a well-ordered election, but expressing fears that Party Y has now come to power on promises that wouldn’t fill the back of a fag packet.

The reason for that, of course, is that however it was expressed, it would be interpreted as interference in Party Y’s policies. But equally, just as democracy is more than about one day of voting, the West could do more to ensure that parties which seek the veneer of democratic legitimacy play by the spirit of the rules, not just the letter.

Those who want foreign aid money and trade deals once in office should be told that the deal starts before they come to power, with some clear and measurable manifesto promises. It shouldn’t be too big an ask. Especially in countries where the West has already invested so much – and where so much still blatantly needs to be done.

More on Iraq

Blair warns against the Islamism that he helped foment
The man who deserves the Nobel is an Iraqi cleric
Bin Laden, Saddam and the law of unintended consequences



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