Hard News by Russell Brown

A new chapter

In a story characterised by false endings, the weekend's election in Iraq signals, at the least, a new chapter - for the simple reason that, unlike the invasion, overthrow and occupation; unlike the capture or killing of the old regime's suspects, of Saddam's sons and Saddam himself; unlike the atrocities in prisons and in Fallujah; unlike the appointment of the interim government or the drafting of the country's interim constitution; voting is an act the people of Iraq have carried out on their own behalf.

We don't actually know how many Iraqis voted yet. The interim government's original guesstimate of a 72% turnout appeared to be plucked from thin air, and the new figure of 60% may yet be on the high side. It's worth noting that even these figures are being given as a proportion of registered voters, not of the overall population. In Jordan, one estimate holds that only one in five of expatriate Iraqis actually registered to vote.

But it seems safe to say that the turnout has been better than expected, and well clear of the various worst-case scenarios. And it's not hard to understand why so many Iraqis would choose to vote, even at what seemed like great personal risk: not just because it is decades since they had the chance to do so meaningfully, but because no other choice seemed even a reasonable option. There was simply no hope in any other course of action.

It was not a perfect election, or a "model" for any other in the future. The vote could only be conducted reasonably safely by essentially shutting down Iraq: borders closed, streets cleared. The location of polling places was a not revealed until the day before, and the actual composition of the party lists for which Iraqis voted was still a secret on the day. In some places, out of fear or anger, virtually no one voted. The policemen who guarded the poll were obliged to dress - jarringly and eerily - like commandos, so their faces could not be recognised. And still, 44 people died in violence on the day - a fact that would have commanded the headlines around any other national election.

And yet, as the Saudi-based Arab News concluded in an editorial headed First Step, "was it really better than no election at all? We think so … This is what we have been waiting for - not appointments but an election by and for the people in which the people choose. It is what so many all over the world have died for and that should not be forgotten."

There are many ironies, of course: not least that these direct elections were opposed by the Americans, and only scheduled at the insistence of the majority Shiite figurehead, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - after huge public demonstrations to press the point. Sistani's role has been quite remarkable. At any point he could have given the signal for a backlash either against occupying forces, or against the Sunni insurgents who tried to provoke civil war with the Shia. He didn't.

The Americans did not, you can be assured, go in to Iraq expecting that they would depend on the statesmanship of an Iranian (Sistani couldn't even vote on Sunday, because he is not an Iraqi citizen) religious leader, or hand over power to a coalition ticket that includes the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and which touted itself in mosques with banners reading "Elections are the best way to expel the occupier from Iraq."

The new government has been elected less to govern than to write a constitution in advance of another vote in November. That process will be very interesting - not least in the extent to which the new, permanent constitution differs from the interim one that was essentially imposed by Washington. The background to that story was outlined by Naomi Klein in a story headed Baghdad Year Zero in Harper's magazine last year.

I don't actually share (surprise!) Klein's apocalyptic view of market policies - democracy in Iraq or anywhere else won't survive without markets. But the point is that it is something for Iraqis to choose - not to have mixed up in a test-tube for them by some twentysomething neocons fresh out of university. It is a safe bet that some degree of statism will survive quite well under a new constitution.

So what, exactly, will a state governed by a majority coalition of religious parties look like? It seems likely that women will lose some of the western-style rights they enjoyed under the secular regime of Saddam. Newsday's story was inconclusive, but noted:

The ayatollah wants Islam to be declared the country's official faith and Islamic law to infuse civil laws. He is also resistant to giving Kurds a veto power over the constitution, as they currently have under an administrative law put in place by the U.S. occupation.

Part of the reason for al-Sistani's backing of the unified Shia slate is to assure him a key role in drafting the constitution. But that is likely to rekindle the debate over the role of clergy in politics.

"Al-Sistani wants to have a strong hand in drafting the constitution," Shammari said. "This will renew questions about what role he wants to play in politics."

On the other hand, Trudy Rubin, who traveled to Iraq for Knight-Ridder - a newspaper chain whose honest, unflinching coverage from Iraq has distinguished it from its peers in the American media (and earned it the enmity of the conservatives' Pollyanna tendency) - talked to senior Shia leaders and found "some room for hope" that they would not move to install a theocracy. She also noted that:

These hopeful signs don't mean that the Shiites are going to deny themselves the fruits of their majority status. They frequently use the analogy of South Africa, with themselves cast as the blacks and Sunnis as the whites.

"They (the Sunnis) will get used to it (the loss of power)," said Finance Minister Mahdi, "like South African whites who didn't give up the first day."

There are ironies even in that characterisation. It seems likely that those Sunnis who did vote were middle-class, West-facing and secular - the kind of people we're used to thinking of as the good guys - and that they voted for Ayad Allawi's list as a way of fending off the perceived threat of religious parties.

Another point of interest in the story: the role of the United Nations. From what I can tell, it's no exaggeration to say that these elections could not have taken place without the conservatives' favourite whipping boy. Voter registrations - something of a miracle in the circumstances - were based on UN food ration cards (an option the US leadership adamantly opposed, then relented on). The UN's election organiser Carlos Valenzuela - the only non-Iraqi on the country's election commission - appears to have played a particularly significant role. (Interestingly, the UN has started its own PR pushback on this and other issues - buying blog-ads that point to pages like this.) The fact that the governments of both Iran and Syria urged Iraqis to seize the chance to vote is also not insignificant.

It is all, of course, far from over. The Turks are already antsy about the nature of the vote in the Kurdish north. The large-scale absence of a Sunni vote causes obvious problems. Although the insurgents under Zarqawi were cruelly exposed by the election, the violence has already begun again. According to Human Rights Watch, the interim government has been overseeing the torture of civilians - and even children - since taking over management of Iraq's jails.

The basic problem of the occupying forces - that it is acceptable neither to stay or to go - persists. As many as 100,000 civilians have died as a result of the invasion. By the interim government's own assessment, coalition forces were killing Iraqi civilians at a greater rate than insurgent terrorists were in the last six months of 2004. In many respects, Iraq is still a horrible, expensive, bloody mess. But today it is, without doubt, better than it was before.