Can elections really change things?

Sunday's vote won't restore Iraq's sovereignty because the key issue of how long the occupation should continue is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

By Jonathan Steele

Published January 28, 2005 3:03PM (EST)

Stroll, if you dare, along the Shatt al Arab, the fast-flowing waterway that connects this city to the Persian Gulf, and you come across a sad-looking park. Where children shrieked on roundabouts and families enjoyed the shade on summer evenings, birds are now the only living creatures behind padlocked gates.

The invading British expropriated the park, and put it inside a no man's land overlooked by gun turrets, when they took over the palace complex that Saddam Hussein built a little farther along the waterfront. Now the dictator's compound is a smaller version of Baghdad's Green Zone, housing the British and American consulates and loads of portable toilets for security guards and other contractors. Iraqi workers are busy digging the ground for a swimming pool.

The British Consulate must surely be the most secluded, and the most bizarre, in the world -- a sprawling sandstone villa behind 12-foot-high concrete walls and three rows of razor wire strung through the water.

Two tugboats proceed down the river, pushing what appear to be empty barges. "Oil smugglers," says a diplomat as two British patrol boats speed past in the opposite direction, taking no notice. "There are probably a thousand tons in each one."

Ancient lawlessness, lost amenities and foreign occupiers are not all one sees in Basra these days. An election campaign has been unfolding here that has been touted as a major turning point in Iraq's return to normality. It has certainly been livelier and more trouble-free than elsewhere in Iraq. Election posters are sprouting on walls like ivy, including those of polling stations, in what will be a violation of the rules if they are not taken down before Sunday.

As most Shiites want to vote, the risk of violence is relatively low, though you would not know it from the Baghdad-style precautions the British are taking. British tank units were even doing exercises this week for what they call the doomsday scenario -- how to retake Basra if militias of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were to seize it.

Whoever wins, much will be made of the turnout figure, as it always is when elections take place during insurgencies. Every vote will be described by the British and U.S. governments as a vote against terrorism and against those who called for a boycott. Washington and London also trumpet the huge number of party lists on the ballot as though quantity alone guarantees choice. In fact the differences between the various lists and candidates' programs is minimal.

The key issue of how long the occupation should continue has not been debated. This leaves the many Iraqis who want to see an early end to it in a dilemma. A contested election is undoubtedly seen by many Iraqis as a historic step forward. On the downside, the vote gives legitimacy to the occupation, especially when there is no party on the ballot that is campaigning unambiguously for the troops' departure. Very few Iraqis talk of the invasion as a liberation these days. The vast majority call it an occupation, yet they see no party or candidate articulating that viewpoint. So the sense of powerlessness and disenfranchisement persists.

"The West loves elections in conflict-ridden countries," a veteran U.N. official commented after the Afghan election last autumn. "They create a logistical challenge. They produce winners and losers, and if they are successful they give a real sense of achievement. But how much do they really change things?"

It's a question many Iraqis are asking. Security, the water supply, long hours of power cuts and petrol shortages remain as bad as they were last year, if not worse. Joblessness is huge, as is disappointment that the government still seems impotent in spite of the much-vaunted "transfer" of sovereignty last June. Will the new one be any better? Will it even produce a different lineup of faces?

The Americans will undoubtedly urge the new government to include Sunni politicians, even though the main Sunni parties are boycotting the election. Diplomats talk of a "corrective mechanism" by which Sunnis can be appointed to the constitution-drafting commission that the newly elected assembly will oversee. While this may be laudable as a technique to lessen the risk of civil war, it serves to undermine the validity of the election if unelected people are appointed to key institutions afterward.

It also begs the question of whether American policies -- excessive use of force in Sunni areas, and the use of Shiite militias in the new Iraqi army in the campaign against Sunni insurgents -- are not a bigger factor in exacerbating sectarian tensions than this election's regional imbalance.

The urban middle class is spooked by the violence. The fears that the few foreign civilians in Iraq have for their own safety are nothing compared with what Iraqis feel for themselves and their families. There is no Green Zone for them. Even the most anti-occupation nationalists are torn between wanting a rapid departure of foreign troops and worries about surviving until nightfall.

Add to that the fear, almost certainly exaggerated, that religious extremists will come to power, and you begin to understand the worries of secular progressives. Although insecurity has increased under Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, some will vote for him in the hope that he will become the strong hand that he has not yet been. In this desperate process many secular democrats discredit their own values.

The real battle lines in Iraq are not so much between Sunnis and Shiites as between those who go along with the occupation and those who resist it. We may be witnessing the Vietnamization of the war as the guerrilla insurgency puts down roots in more and more cities to the north and west of Baghdad and starts to take the fight to districts of Baghdad.

Haifa Street, close to the capital's very heart, is already becoming a no-go area. In the future more areas of the city may see roving guerrilla checkpoints. If the United States follows the brutal tactics it adopted against Fallujah and inflicts them on other population centers, the insurgency will spread even faster.

Sunday's election will show that you can manage to hold an election in the midst of an insurgency. It will therefore be hailed as a logistical and democratic triumph. But it will not solve Iraq's central problem: How to restore the country's sovereignty. The paradox of the landscape that will become clear after Sunday's election is that only by fixing a timetable for the departure of foreign troops will Iraq have any chance of stability, yet the government that will take office will probably neither want nor dare to do it.

Jonathan Steele

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