By Colin Foster
Not only most of the activist left, but also much of the liberal “soft” left, denounced Iraq’s elections on 30 January as a farce.
A cartoon in the Independent (31 January) showed an Iraqi facing a ballot paper with none but stooge candidates on it — “Independent Stooge Alliance”, “Alliance of Independent Stooges”, “Stooge List”, “Union of Stooges”, etc. Many leftists support the “resistance” militias who made death threats against anyone voting.
These views are wrong and condescending. The biggest forces in the election, the Shia “United Iraqi Alliance” and the Kurdish warlord parties (KDP and PUK), are reactionary forces, but they are not US stooges. In fact the USA is dismayed and alarmed by the rise of the Shia alliance, led by Islamists many of whom want the same sort of system in Iraq as in Iran.
The US and the Iraqi Interim Government had systematically talked down expectations for the turnout in the weeks leading up to the election, so that 57 per cent would seem good. But in conditions where people faced a credible threat that they would be killed if they voted, it was a relatively high turnout.
The elections were not “imposed” on Iraq by the USA. In fact they reflected the US occupation at last deciding it had no alternative but to concede to the pressure for elections from Iraq’s Shia majority.
Patrick Cockburn in the Independent made an unexpectedly “bare-bones Leninist” comment. “The world is full of parliaments duly elected by a free ballot but powers stays elsewhere, with the army, the security services, or, in the case of Iraq today, an occupying foreign power”.
Or, in the case of Britain, the final power stays with big corporations, banks, unelected civil service chiefs, etc., with the army as fallback. It does not mean that elections are irrelevant, still less that it is a progressive act to kill people who want to vote.
It is a “cultural relativist” and not an internationalist view in which Iraqis’ desire for elections can be discounted as tame stuff, and the “resistance” militias seen as what revolutionaries in the “Third World” should be by the mere fact of their violence against the Americans, even if that violence also kills trade unionists and targets polling stations as “centres of atheism”.
That there have been elections is good. It does not mean at all that the elections justify the US/UK invasion or the occupation, or that they have established a functioning democracy in Iraq.
The elections were — according to the evidence so far — primarily a communal headcount, Shia voting for the Shia alliance, Kurds voting for the Kurdish alliance, Sunnis mostly not voting. That happened not because the US forced people to vote that way, but because of the collapse of Iraqi society into chaos and communalism created by the cumulative effects of decades of totalitarian rule, sanctions, invasion, and the brutality and rapacity of the occupation.
Now the assembly must elect a presidential council of three — each member by a two-thirds majority — and that presidential council must appoint a prime minister, who then appoints ministers.
This US-designed procedure — coupled with the proportional representation system for the election, which will have made it almost impossible for any one party to get more than 30% of the assembly — will force the Shia alliance and the Kurds to do a deal, and to find a Sunni politician for the third member of the council. The government that emerges from the convoluted procedure will probably be very similar to the present Interim Government, only with a different balance.
It will be yet another interim administration, due to present a new constitution for a referendum in August, and to call new elections under that constitution in December.
Democracy is not just elections. Democracy requires a functioning and coherent civil society, and the election has not created that.
It may be difficult for the new administration to stagger through to December without increased violence and chaos. As US academic Juan Cole points out: “Many of the voters came out to cast their ballots in the belief that it was the only way to regain enough sovereignty to get American troops out of their country. The new parliament is unlikely to make such a demand immediately, because its members will be afraid of being killed by the Ba’th military. [Cole’s view is that “resistance” is primarily Ba’thist, but his point holds even if the majority of the resistance is Sunni supremacist or “authentically” Islamist].
“One fears a certain amount of resentment among the electorate when this reticence becomes clear”.
The great missed opportunity of the election, the great reason why it may prove to have been not even a little step towards a functioning democracy, is that there was no working-class voice in it, no voice that could start to rally Iraqi workers and unemployed across the communal lines against the Islamists, the Ba’thists, and the US/UK forces.
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq did not stand. The Communist Party of Iraq stood only as part of a non-socialist “People’s Union” slate, concocted by them with various “technocrats” and “religious figures” when, to their open disappointment, they could not get a deal on a broader coalition with the Shia alliance.
The first task of socialists in Britain must be to support the emerging Iraqi workers’ movement, and speed the day when it is confident and strong enough to present itself to the peoples of Iraq as a political alternative.
One figure explains why Iraq is in such chaos, and why the US/UK occupation is so widely hated: $8.8 billion.
That is the amount which US government auditors found unaccounted for in $20 billion of Iraqi oil revenues appropriated by the Coalition Provisional Authority between April 2003 and June 2004.
It is equivalent to one half the total annual economic output of Iraq, in present conditions. And it has disappeared with nothing to show for it.
“There was insufficient internal control to assure that money was spent for the benefit of the Iraqis, as the UN Security Council resolution mandated,” said the auditors’ chief of staff, Ms Ginger Cruz.
According to the BBC’s report: “One US company is accused of massively inflating its profits by setting up sham companies to send fake invoices which the coalition paid. Others are alleged to have demanded dubious commissions which then came out of Iraqi funds. Even some Coalition officials are said to have openly demanded bribes of up to $300,000 in cash”.
The water and electricity supplies, the functioning hospitals, which that money was supposed to buy, are still not there. Baghdad has electricity only about eight hours a day. Basra still has no clean running water.
Such are the results of mixing the neo-liberal recipes of privatisation and contracting out with great-power arrogance and military triumphalism.