After months of intensifying violence, a looming Sunni boycott, and numerous calls for postponement, Iraq's elections took place as scheduled on January 30 and were immediately hailed as a resounding success. A total of 8.5 million Iraqis, under literal threat of decapitation, cast their ballots at some 5,300 polling centers across the country. Turnout reached 58 percent nationally, surpassing 90 percent in certain Shiite- and Kurd-dominated neighborhoods, and bloodshed was relatively minimal, with forty-four Iraqis killed during the day and 100 wounded. In images flashed around the world, Iraqi people were seen dancing in jubilation and proudly displaying fingers stained with purple ink -- the mark that they had voted. It was a "victory of freedom," as George W. Bush declared, as well as an ostensible victory for the American president, who had begun arguing early in 2004 that timely elections, even if flawed and not entirely representative, were an embodiment of liberty and self-determination. "Across Iraq today," President Bush announced from the White House, "men and women have taken rightful control of their country's destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace."
But the elections, despite their undeniable success as symbol, may prove more destructive than liberating. I spent a good part of the last several months talking to election experts and government officials about Iraq's experiment with democracy, and in late January I was in the country to witness the elections. The more I learned about Iraq's election process and saw it in practice, the more convinced I became that the country was being led not on a march to freedom but down a path toward future internal strife and possible civil war. Little I observed in Iraq resembled a country experiencing its first free and democratic elections. There were no debates and essentially no ideas or party platforms apart from a repeated mantra that the country needs security, stability, and independence. Candidates, fearful for their lives, remained anonymous or in hiding. And television ads urging citizens to go to the polls -- some of which showed American tanks leaving the country as Iraqi children looked on, and all of which made the vague appeal to "Elect Iraq" -- avoided naming parties, since it was understood that religious and ethnic groups would vote for their own candidates. A Kurd was not going to vote for a Shiite party; a Sunni Arab would not vote for Turkmen candidates. The campaign mostly looked like a contest over who could put up the most posters, each with its own coded symbols: red, yellow, green, and the flag of Kurdistan for the sole Kurdish party, and images of Shiite clerics for the main Shiite slate. This said far less about the emancipatory power of the electoral process than it did about the deep-seated divisions that define the country.
The relative peace that existed in Iraq on January 30, and that ended less than two days later, was achieved only through extraordinarily draconian measures. The entire indigenous and foreign security forces were mobilized around the clock on almost every street corner, prohibiting all civilian automobile traffic. Borders and airports were closed, and curfews were imposed. In a Sunni Arab neighborhood in Kirkuk, where I spent much of election day, there was barely a hint that an election was taking place. When I finally found a school serving as a voting center, masked Iraqi police officers opened fire on my car. After the guards stopped their shooting, they dragged me onto the street and searched my vehicle, quickly finding my passport and press credentials. I pointed angrily to the large sticker that U.S. Army commanders had adhered to the middle of my windshield, the same conspicuous permit authorizing Iraqi police cars to use the streets that day, and the men apologized. I should have also put a flag on my car, the officers told me. They had been awake for five straight days, protecting the school and facing nightly attacks. "The resistance is very strong here," one of the policemen said. Inside the school, the mood among the solitary election workers was funereal. Several of them wore masks, afraid that they might be killed for working on the elections and collaborating with the American occupiers.
Election specialists generally agree that national elections in post-conflict countries should be held as late as possible; instead, local elections should occur first because they restore the conditions necessary for a fair and safe federal vote. In such environments, where mistrust and violence continue to predominate, nationalist parties claiming to speak for a specific ethnic group too frequently make the most immediate sense to voters. But in Iraq, after the insurgency escalated during the fall of 2003, the Americans faced pressure to grant the country "sovereignty" earlier than planned. They devised an obscure caucus plan that few understood and that the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rejected. Sistani demanded immediate direct elections for a new national government, and a date was set, thereby locking in the Americans on January 30. Sunni leaders called for a six-month delay, emphasizing that their followers could not register or vote without being put in grave danger; other Sunnis dismissed the elections as illegitimate because they were being orchestrated by the U.S.-backed interim government. Iraq's Shiites objected to any changes in the timetable. Sistani ordered his flock to take part in the election, and his representatives warned that those who did not vote would go to hell.
In November and December, more than 100 political entities registered "lists" of candidates to compete for the 275 seats on a transitional national assembly, the body that will write Iraq's new constitution. People voted for these lists rather than for candidates; the number of candidates from a list that will serve on the national assembly depends on what percentage of the vote the list received. It is essentially the Israeli system, although for reasons that should be obvious nobody wanted to call it that. The assembly will elect the president, the prime minister, and several vice presidents. The constitution will then be presented to the Iraqi people in a referendum. There were also elections for eighteen provisional councils and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Seen from the ground, though, the elections seemed to be not a competition among parties or lists, among people who envisioned themselves as part of a unified Iraq, but rather a competition for power among different ethnic and religious groups, a public display of intense and pervasive ethnic-sectarian identification. In a Turkmen neighborhood in Kirkuk where I traveled in the weeks leading up to the election, every wall was blanketed with posters urging people to vote for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a radical organization supported by Turkish intelligence. Those traveling to the polls in a Kurdish section of the city waved flags of Kurdistan, wore traditional Kurdish garb, and danced to Kurdish music, their shoulders joined together as they rose and fell in unison. Iraq's Shiite Arabs, the country's long-suffering majority, rejoiced in anticipation of finally taking control of Iraq after so many years of subjugation. The Shiites stand to benefit the most from proportional elections, and to benefit even more from a Sunni turnout that was artificially low due to a boycott and intimidation. When I met in December with Joost Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq working for the International Crisis Group, he explained to me, "Shia discontent characterized Iraq for eighty years. They are parlaying their demographic majority into political dominance. They see it as an entitlement."
The largest list in the elections, the United Iraqi Alliance, known as the "Sistani List" due to the cleric's blessing of it, is dominated by Shiites seeking an Islamic government similar to Iran's and anathema to the secular Kurds and the Sunnis, who do not recognize the spiritual or political authority of the Shiite clerics. The United Iraqi Alliance received nearly 50 percent of the overall vote, and will hold the majority of seats in the assembly. Even in Saddam Hussein's home province, a Sunni stronghold, most of the ballots were cast for the Sistani List. The Kurds of the north, and the main party representing them, the Kurdistan Alliance, which received the second most votes in the election, advocate seceding from Iraq and establishing their own long-dreamed-of nation. Looking at the Arabs to the south of them, and at the chaos gripping Iraq, it is difficult for them to find reasons to stay.
A Shiite and Kurdish government in Iraq without Sunnis, who held most of the positions under Saddam, would mean that instability has been embedded in the new Iraqi political system. There has been talk that those elected to the national assembly will decide to appoint prominent Sunnis to high-level posts in the government, but there is no guarantee that such an offering, even if it were to be made, would help stabilize the country. "With Sunni involvement seemingly coming from the charity of the Shia and the Kurds," says Gareth Stansfield, an Iraq specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, "it is all too likely that the forces of the Sunni insurgency will continue to grow, as the disaffected youth, ex-Baathists, ex-military, and Islamists see the new government as a
Copyright 2005, Harper's Magazine