Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 12

Only 12 shooting days until Democracy.

Of course, 20% of the country won't be represented -- or is voting, as they say, with their feet, if not with guns. And this is only part of the surreal election cycle in a country at war. Where no one knows either the names of most of the candidates or their platforms. When 60% of the electorate thinks the election is for a new president, rather than a 275 member national assembly to write a new constitution. Where they haven't even published the locations of many polling places yet -- and those that are known are targets for insurgent mortar shells. Where the same travel restrictions meant to hamper the insurgents may hamper voters equally. But then never having known even the shadow of a free election for decades, perhaps Iraqis are proof against such ironies.

Under these conditions, you have to admire the determination of the powers in charge. The chief UN Election advisor, Carlos Valenzuela, announced today that only "a sustained onslaught by insurgents or the mass resignation of electoral workers will prevent this month's national elections from going ahead". Though he also "acknowledged that intimidation of electoral workers by guerrillas seeking to derail the balloting is 'high and very serious'.'' The inventiveness of the Iraqi electoral commission, as it tries to deal with such risks, puts Florida election officials to shame. Voters from the troubled provinces of Nineveh and Anwar will be allowed to register and vote on the same day. And in Mosul, where reports last week (contested by Valenzuela) were that virtually all election workers had resigned, "voters will be allowed to cast ballots in safer parts the city or elsewhere in the province." Other schemes seem more dubiously conceived, e.g. the plan to post lists of voters at offices throughout the country, to let names be either added or challenged, to prevent fraud. If I were an Iraqi terrorist, why wouldn't I thank the commission for this handy way to shop for potential victims?

Fraud is a serious concern of course, although the "ordinary" kind of electoral problem that's simultaneously dwarfed and exacerbated in Iraq by security issues. Indeed, by comparison to blowing up election officials, fraud might be considered a vote of confidence in the system. Look at it this way: you can't rig the vote, if you don't have the vote. And the truth is massive electoral fraud offers the best chance of at least numerically legitimate representation in Sunni areas. Though this also almost guarantees a post-electoral challenge by some in the certain-to-be-victorious Shi'ite factions. But then as George Bush might say, this election is only a beginning not an end. Except to American involvement in Iraq (see next post).

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