What do the elections mean?

On Sunday February 13 the 'Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq' released provisional results of the January 29-30 elections to a constitutional assembly. These elections were organised by the IECI with UN assistance, under the aegis of the US-British occupiers and their Iraqi puppet 'interim government'. The elections have been the subject of massive spin on 'Iraq's transition to democracy'. We have been told that high turnout showed this was what Iraqis really wanted and that the gift of 'democracy' legitimises the US-British war in Iraq. A 72% turnout was initially claimed, but this was rapidly reduced to around 60%, and the current claim is 58%. The Israeli website Debkafile, said to be close to Mossad, estimated 40-45%. This estimate has been seized on by opponents of the occupation, but Debkafile has since played it down. There is no clarity as to the proportion between registered voters and people eligible for registration, which makes any judgement speculative. A small example of the uncertainties is given by the report, also from Debkafile, that turnout in Kurdistan was increased by the participation of Kurds from across the Iranian and Turkish borders. In addition, the occupiers had no means to prevent ballot-stuffing except in occasional cases (the security situation meant that there could not be fully systematic monitoring). Nor did they have any interest in doing so: their interest is in maximising the reported turnout and creating a regime which can have enough ostensible support to provide the fig leaf for an exit strategy. The 'sunni areas' north-west of Baghdad were marked by an effective boycott. The media are generally characterising this as having been enforced at the point of a gun. However, in spite of low turnout supporters of participating parties did get to vote in significant numbers even in Anbar province (where the turnout was 2%), and the level of violence on polling day, while significant, remained on the scale of guerrilla attacks. It thus seems that the 'sunni' Anbar, Nineveh and Salahadin provinces, where the turnout was poor, saw broad political-religious support for the boycott. Boycott support was almost certainly wider. Polling among Iraqis in the emigration was poor, and an overall 58% turnout - at best - in what had been hailed as the first democratic elections in Iraq since the 1950s is surprisingly low. The party-list system The election was conducted on the basis of a pure party-list system without constituency representation. Such systems are normally designed to promote control of the electoral process by central party apparatuses, which can be more easily controlled or corrupted. In Iraq the ostensible justification was to secure proportional representation of the Kurdish national minority and the sunni and shia religious groupings. The Worker-communist Party of Iraq has accused the occupiers on this basis of using the party list mechanism to promote religious-communalist movements. In fact, it seems unnecessary for the occupiers to do so. The ascendancy of nationalism in Kurdistan is the unsurprising result of decades of national oppression. Elsewhere, the underlying destruction of the Iraqi state and economy by the 1991-2003 US-British war on Iraq, culminating in the 2003 invasion, left the mosques, and charities controlled by them, as the fundamental source of social solidarity and welfare provision. Meanwhile, in its latter years the Ba'athist regime not only continued to repress its secular opponents savagely, but also began to lean on islamist rhetoric. Under these conditions it is natural that politics should take primarily religious-communal forms. The occupiers are no doubt happy that it does so. Promoting religious division and communalism in the colonies was a commonplace tactic of the British foreign and colonial office - and one the US rediscovered in Vietnam, and has applied vigorously in a variety of political operations in the 'third world' from the 1970s onwards. But since the religious-communal divisions in Iraq are largely, though not completely, also geographical divisions, they would have been reflected in constituency-based elections. Centralised control must thus have been the occupiers' primary motive. They may also have hoped that a party-list ballot would gloss over the high degree of geographical variation in their control of the country, reflected in extremely low turnouts in sunni areas. The occupiers' aim of maintaining control is also reflected in the very indirect powers of the assembly. It will elect (by a two thirds majority) a president and two deputies, who will choose a prime minister, who will in turn choose a government. It is similarly expected that the assembly will appoint a commission to draft a constitution. US sources have repeatedly trailed the idea that sunni political and religious groups, which will be 'underrepresented' because of poor turnout in sunni areas could be brought in by cooption both into the government and into this drafting commission. The scope for manipulation is considerable. Electoral results The big winners of the election are three. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the shia communalist list linked to Ayatollah al-Sistani (though he remains in the shadows), obtained around 48% of the vote. A distant second was the Kurdish Alliance list, with around 26%; and third current prime minister Allawi's Iraqi List, with just less than 14%. Beyond this, no-one obtained more than 2%. Nine other parties of the 120 registered passed the 0.36% threshold for representation in the 275-member assembly. The Iraqis list headed by current president Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer managed 1.78%; the Iraqi Turkmen Front 1.11%; the National Independent Cadres and Elites list (linked to Muqtada al-Sadr) 0.83%; the Iraqi Communist Party's People's Unity list also 0.83%; the wahhabi islamist Islamic Group of Kurdistan 0.72%; the shadowy Islamic Action Organisation in Iraq - Central Command 0.51%; the secular National Democratic Alliance 0.44%; the Assyrian-Christian and Chaldean National Rafidain List 0.43%; and the secular Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc 0.36%. The level of dispersal of the vote at the lower end of the spectrum (around 5% of all votes were distributed amongst the 108 lists that failed to reach the minimum threshold for representation) means that a significant number of seats fall to be redistributed among those parties that passed 0.36%. At the time of writing (February 15) there is a fairly diverse speculation available on the web about how this will play out. The result may give the UIA a bare majority in the assembly, but since a two-thirds majority is required to form a government they will have to make deals; widely predicted to be with the Kurds. Not a free election This was not a free election. Electors could have little more to go on in choosing how to vote than the names of the lists and guidance from local big shots or religious leaders. The inability of the occupiers and their puppet security forces to protect individuals from assassination meant that even the names of the candidates were largely undisclosed. The reality on the ground is that freedom of movement and assembly are highly limited by the destruction of the Iraqi state. In rural southern Iraq local power has returned to the shia warlords with whom the British collaborated in the colonial and post-colonial period. In the cities a variety of militias have 'turf' which the police do not invade (and the occupiers only in episodic blunderbuss 'anti-terrorist' operations). The election results do not express the free decisions of the Iraqi people. But they do give us a picture of the general political relation of forces between the competing tendencies. The votes grow out of local control and economic-political patronage; but precisely for that reason they do say something about real power. The Sistani list The main winner is the UIA 'Sistani list'. The major spin from the media has been to represent the victory of this list as a victory for democracy: both because the shia are a majority of the Iraqi population, and by distancing the list and Sistani from the Iranian clericalist-theocratic regime. The fact that the Iranian islamic regime gave massive financial and material support to this list (as reported by Mehdi Kia in last week's Weekly Worker, and in numerous other places) is therefore played down. Similarly, the mainstream media insist that Sistani is not an advocate of a clericalist regime along Iranian lines: he only wants sharia to be the fundamental basis of Iraqi law. The Fourth International's Gilbert Achcar has taken this piece of imperialist spin to new heights: Sistani's struggle for elections represents the sophisticated mass-struggle approach to getting the occupiers out of Iraq, as opposed to the head-banging military resistance (http://www.workersliberty.org/node/view/3597). This spin is fundamentally misconceived in two ways. The first concerns the nature of law and sharia in particular; the second the nature of democracy. Sharia as the basis of law Law is the body of reasoning which is supposed to inform the decision-making of judges. The main body of (relatively) uncontroversial law is usually expressed in the form of rules. The problem of legal authority can thus be expressed (with only limited oversimplification) as: who gets to make the rules? Sharia is a body of rules which the islamic scholars, the ulama, claim to have been laid down by god through the mouth of his prophet, Muhammad. Very little of it, however, can be found in the Koran, and what there is depends for its meaning on hadith: traditions transmitted from the prophet. When we ask how we know which traditions are genuine and which false, the answer turns out to be that we examine the chain of transmitters of the tradition, the isnad. The transmitters are treated as witnesses (MM Al-Azami Studies in hadith methodology and literature 2002). But we do not use the normal legal and historical criteria for assessing the credibility of witnesses, which include their antecedent biases and their closeness to the event they claim to report. Rather, we use solely their moral character and their 'accuracy', as compared to other transmitters. But these in turn unavoidably fall back on the consensus of the transmitters as to good character and accuracy (or more exactly the consensus of the ulama in their assessment of the consensus of the transmitters), as the fundamental source of authority. Therefore to claim that sharia is a fundamental entrenched basis of law is necessarily to say that the ulama collectively must have a veto over the content of the law. It is perfectly irrelevant whether the state constitution includes institutional forms of this veto - as in the case in Iran. Sistani and his co-thinkers no doubt assess that there is a major advantage in not having such mechanisms. The Iranian regime makes the ulama obviously masters of the state. They thus get the blame for things that go wrong. The apparently modest suggestion that sharia should be the 'fundamental' basis of law allows the ulama veto power without responsibility. There is a further problem. There is not in fact a consensus of the ulama. Shia law is different from sunni law, and among sunni ulama there are four legitimate schools of thought - Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali. Wahhabism leans towards the Hanbali school, and there has therefore been some Saudi-led shift in modern times even of shia legal thought in this direction (AA Sachedina The just ruler in shi'ite islam 1988). But there is enough leeway for a wide variety of views on concrete legal questions to be held. Without a structured judicial hierarchy allowing a supreme court to determine the rules, or a legislature with power to do so, the result is that each scholar with a militia at his disposal is a sovereign power. Several authors have commented on this in Iraq under occupation: power fragments and devolves onto local mosques, militias and shaykhs. But to create a supreme court or give a legislature with power to settle disputes among the ulama would precisely be to subordinate sharia to this state law rather than the state law to sharia. Democracy Democracy means majority rule, right? So if the majority votes for sharia to be the basis of law, we may not like it, but it is still democratic, right? Wrong. We might equally say: democracy means majority rule; the German people voted (in a rigged referendum, but probably by a real majority) to confer all power on Hitler; therefore the Nazi regime was democratic. Which would be absurd. Majority rule is just a mechanism for taking decisions. The idea of democracy is something radically different: an agreement that everyone is to get to participate in political decision-making. Decision-making for some purposes by casting lots (as in jury selection) or for other purposes by rule of consensus (everyone has to agree) can be democratic. Self-negating majority rule - in which the majority gets to vote once to confer power on an individual or minority, and not thereafter - is not political democracy. To vote to adopt a constitution or laws which are influenced by islam, but derive their authority from the constitutional assembly or legislature, could be democratic. It depends on the laws: for example, the exclusion of women (the majority in most societies) from voting or political office is anti-democratic. To vote to entrench islam or sharia as the basis of the law, in contrast, is necessarily anti-democratic, however much of a majority there is for it. 'Sistani the democrat' is just more spin in the interests of the occupiers. Mass support It is nonetheless clear that the UIA has obtained broad mass support, at least in the shia areas. Why? In the first place is the point already made. The US-British demolition of the Iraqi economy in the 1991-2003 war, and of the Iraqi state in the actual invasion and its aftermath, has left religious and local communal leadership as the primary means of social solidarity and authority. This is not only visible in the vote for the UIA, but also in its counterpart, the mass boycott in the main sunni areas, and on a smaller scale in the votes for the Turkmen and christian-Chaldean communalist lists. Secondly, the shia probably are the majority religious group in Iraq (all the figures available are pretty vague). In the later years of the Ba'ath regime, and especially after the Iranian revolution, they were subordinated and oppressed because of their religion. Conversely, precisely because this was a shia clericalist list it received massive support from the Iranian regime. Thirdly, these were in an important sense Sistani's elections. Sistani kept his distance from the occupiers, while the principal parties of the exile community succumbed to the temptation to play footsie with them. Sistani insisted - against the US's and most of the exiles' aspirations to a prolonged period of appointed government - on early elections. Sistani in August 2004 used a mass mobilisation to rescue Sadr from the consequences - a US siege - of his adventurist attempt to seize the cities. In a sense the political consequence can be seen in the elections - Sistani: 48%; Sadr: 1%. Perhaps the most extraordinary consequence is that Sistani has been able to cast the mantle of his legitimacy over Ahmed Chalabi, who was one of the principal supporting actors in the US decision to go to war. It may have helped that Chalabi repositioned himself by being 'exposed' as an Iranian agent, but it is still striking that Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress joined the UIA and that the man himself has been put forward since the elections as a possible prime minister. UIA weaknesses The UIA thus has very considerable political legitimacy. It has, however, two potential points of vulnerability. The first is that it is a coalition. Its immediate response to its electoral success has been that not one, but three names have been suggested for prime minister: one from the old Iraqi islamist party, Dawa; one from the Iranian-sponsored Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); and Chalabi himself. The occupiers clearly hope to lever advantage from these potential divisions, as they have been played up in several pro-occupation media sources. But the underlying authority of the ayatollahs, plus the simple need for unity to negotiate effectively for office, may well prevent the hoped-for splits manifesting or doing so in the interests of the imperialists' designs. The second and more fundamental is that UIA, unlike the other major political players, lacks armed forces. The party militias - notably SCIRI's Badr Brigade - are certainly able to terrorise civilians. But in summer 2003 they showed themselves to be no more militarily capable than the Sadrists. And the Sadrists in the same period showed themselves unable not only to hold territory against the occupiers - which no Iraqi forces can do - but even of to inflict serious casualties on them. The boycotters and the armed resistance Among the most powerful groups identified by the elections are those that boycotted them; and those that continue to conduct armed struggle against the occupiers and their puppets (the two are not by any means identical). These groups have been characterised in the mainstream media as sunni. It is clear enough that their strongest bases are in the predominantly sunni areas of north-western Iraq, but this is not news. The media spin identifies them as sunni for the same reason that the IRA was traditionally identified in the British media as catholic: to promote the impression that what is going on is a religious war among Iraqis rather than a struggle against colonialism and national subordination. When the British and Americans invaded Iraq, they told their troops to 'come as liberators, not conquerors'. But they were greeted not with universal welcome, but significant initial military resistance (defeated by an outflanking manoeuvre, combined with the use of overwhelming firepower). And they met at best sullen acceptance from the mass of the population. However tyrannised by the Ba'ath regime, these masses knew all too well that the US and Britain had waged a war of naval blockade and air raids (called 'sanctions') against their country for 12 years. They came as conquerors, not liberators. The Ba'athist leadership understood perfectly well that their army could not stand up to US air and armoured superiority in open battle. They spoke of drawing the Americans into street-fighting, but it is clear that they also prepared for a long-running guerrilla campaign. Guerrilla attacks on US (and to a much lesser extent other occupier) forces began on the morrow of the US capture of Baghdad and have continued, at much the same level, ever since. They have spread more widely, targeting mainly legitimate military targets: the puppet regime's soldiers, police and political leaders. They have displayed high-level military competence. The occupiers have little effective intelligence on them. They began by claiming, probably more or less correctly, that the guerrillas were 'remnants of the old regime'. But, as it became clear that the guerrillas had significant popular political support, this became ideologically unattractive: it would involve admitting that Ba'athism was not merely the personal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, but a mass movement with real roots. Instead there has been an increasing tendency to spin the guerrillas as 'foreign fighters' tied to wahhabism and al-Qa'eda; a line which represents a more extreme form of spinning them as 'sunnis'. The large bulk of the guerrillas' actions expresses a clear and simple political idea. The invasion and occupation of Iraq are illegitimate: the invaders must be driven out and their puppet regime overthrown. There are, however, episodic instances of terrorist attacks on shias. In 2004 several commentators attributed these to US provocations, and this is still possible. It is also likely, however, that there are in Iraq wahhabi fighters from elsewhere in the Arab east sponsored by sections of the Saudi elite - who might well carry out such attacks. And it is possible that sections of the guerrilla resistance have gone over to wahhabism. The reason this is possible is that the guerrillas have a major strength: an army in being, even if one which can only operate as guerrillas. But they have a corresponding political weakness: lack of political legitimacy. To appeal to Iraqi nationalism as such would necessarily be to appeal to Ba'athism. But in spite of its real mass base, the Ba'ath Party steadily narrowed its support through the 1980s and 1990s. It led the country into disastrous wars first with Iran (1980-88) and then with the US (from 1991). It drove both the Kurds and leaders of the shia probable majority in the country into open opposition. And the leadership core was progressively narrowed and corrupted by Saddam Hussein's dynasticism. Then the invasion, whatever else it did, did succeed in decapitating the Ba'athists. In these circumstances, in the first place the guerrillas are unlikely on the basis of Ba'athism to be able to break out of their isolation in the sunni north west (which was also the core base of Ba'athism). Secondly, however much spin there may be, it is also unlikely that the guerrillas can remain - as they fairly clearly began - simple Ba'athist Iraqi nationalists. They are bound to look for pan-Arab support (also an element of Ba'athist ideology); and where they are most likely to find it is among the wahhabi jihadis. An indication of the consequences is the period between the two sieges of Fallujah, when the US turned over 'control' to a Ba'athist general and forces organised by him. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reported that on the surface the Ba'athist regime seemed to have returned, but underlying it was a federation of mosque-led militias, each with their own turf (The Guardian June 25 2004). The paradox is that this turn makes them less likely to succeed in breaking out of localisation and mobilising a movement which can turn out the occupiers and overthrow whatever puppet regime they leave behind. Let us suppose that the US, which has clearly been seeking an exit strategy since summer 2004 at the latest, pulls out, leaving the government in shia hands. The guerrillas would lose the legitimacy of their struggle against the occupiers. Wahhabism would hardly allow the formation of a government which would have legitimacy among Iraq's shia. Even if the guerrillas' possession of an army in being gave them a momentary advantage, an attempt to create a wahhabi state on Iran's western borders would certainly provoke Iranian intervention. The Kurdish list The Kurds similarly have an army, or more exactly armies, in being: the peshmerga. They have also benefited from the period of 'sanctions' and have to a considerable extent stabilised their control in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their legitimacy from Kurdish nationalism has allowed the Kurdish list, an alliance of the (episodically warring) Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Precisely because they are grounded in Kurdish nationalism, however, the Kurds cannot offer a political leadership to Iraq as a whole. Moreover, they have an axe hanging over their head. If the Kurds obtain independence from Iraq, Turkey has promised to invade, because of the threat an independent Kurdistan would pose to exacerbate Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. They have already complained that 'Turkish Kurds' were allowed to vote in the Iraqi assembly elections. While the Iranian regime was during the Iran-Iraq war and after friendly to the Iraqi Kurds, it is likely that they, too, would see an independent Kurdistan as threatening to revive Kurdish nationalism in Iran. The Iraqi List At the head of the Iraqi List was current prime minister Iyad Allawi. Like the UIA, Allawi's campaign was generously funded - this time from US sources. Its relatively poor showing at only 14% is the obverse of the success of the UIA, illustrating the general mass hostility to the occupation. Allawi nonetheless represents something different and more significant. An ex-Ba'athist, as prime minister he has pushed for the reintegration into the police and army of ex-Ba'athists and the creation of a secret police. He therefore represents not only the occupiers (having had long-term relationships with British and US intelligence services), but also a wing of the Ba'athists. This wing, rather than embark on the guerrilla road, sees a road back to power through reconstituting the Ba'athist state core. The Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation (IDAO) website published on January 28 what purported to be a leaked document discussing a strategy of restoration of the Ba'ath regime via a build-up in the state apparatus (which might lead at a suitable moment to a coup). IDAO comments that the US appointment last summer of the old central America hand, Negroponte, as ambassador points in the same direction. How far any moves in this direction have gone is very questionable. If, however, there is a significant Ba'athist element in the new puppet army and police which the occupiers are slowly trying to build up, Allawi will represent more than his list's 14% suggests. The workers' movement The workers' movement has obtained only the most minimal representation in this election. The Iraqi Communist Party endeavoured to put together a secular-democratic broad front, but its People's Unity list attracted only a few 'independent' personalities, and 69,000 votes, 0.83% of the total. It is quite possible, given the conditions under which the election has taken place, that this understates its support; but it is clear that the mass-based Iraqi Communist Party o f the period before the Ba'athist regime is no more. It seems probable that the ICP has paid the price of its decision to participate in the puppet government as a 'forum of struggle' and to attempt to gain from the occupiers their exclusive franchise for 'trade unionism'. The Worker-communist Party and the anti-occupation splinters of the ICP boycotted the election, so that how much support they have is invisible. More generally, all the secular trends except the Kurdish nationalists, who have their own armies and territory, and Allawi, who had the backing of the occupiers, have been marginalised in these elections by a great wave of islamism and communalism. The occupiers The elephant sitting on Iraqi politics is the occupying armies. It remains true, as it has been since April 2003, that the occupiers can prevent the formation of an Iraqi state, but cannot themselves construct one. This is not because of the illegitimacy of the invasion. If the invasion had delivered adequate policing, work and economic reconstruction, the illegitimacy might more easily be disregarded. The problem is that the post-1945 state-building exercises in Germany and Japan (and equally the cold war state-building exercises in Korea and Taiwan, etc) involved not only political reconstruction and military support, but also massive economic concessions to rebuild national capitals: the Marshall plan and similar devices, and concessions to nationalisations, protectionism against US capital and controls on capital movement. But to make such concessions in Iraq would be to reverse the whole of US policy since the late 1970s and repudiate a core element of the ideology of the people who planned this invasion. In fact, the US could not afford such a turn. Financialisation and looting of the 'third world' is the key to keeping the US capital markets and credit system afloat. It is for this reason that the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's suggestion that post-war Germany and Japan has some political relevance to Iraq is and always was complete nonsense. The elections reflect the fact that the occupiers were forced to concede them. Conceding them, in turn, meant accepting that they could not construct a regime which would have any hope of not being transparently a puppet regime, without the legitimacy available from Sistani's leadership of the shia. The occupiers have now gone from open direct control (the Coalition Provisional Authority) through an attempt to use the exile parties (Interim Governing Council) through partial re-Ba'athification (Allawi and the interim government) to, now, effectively conceding to the Iranian regime a legitimate interest in Iraqi politics (the elections and the UIA). A regime created on this basis may give them a fig leaf behind which they can withdraw. It is hard to see how it can possibly lead to a long-term US presence in Iraq or to the 'democratisation' of the Middle East. If these were the occupiers' long-term goals, they have already been defeated. But it may be that the continuing force of neo-con ideology in the US will lead them to struggle on, pouring endless Iraqi lives and Iraqi, US and British money into the bottomless pit of the struggle for 'security' in Iraq. If (as is said above) the occupiers are seeking an 'exit strategy' which loses as little face as possible, the election results are good from their point of view. The clear preponderance of the UIA will in principle enable a government of some sort to be formed with significant legitimacy. The structure of the assembly will force concessions, especially to Allawi and the Kurds, while the relation of forces on the ground will make a case for bringing in 'underrepresented' sunni islamists. The inevitable struggle for power can be postponed until the occupying troops are off the scene. If the occupiers do struggle to hold on rather than seek an early exit, the elections are much more ambiguous. Though the structure of the assembly may block the UIA from taking full power, there may well be a clear majority for a call to set a date for the withdrawal of the occupying troops. If this happens, the occupiers will be in trouble: their last hope for political legitimacy within Iraq will have failed. Nothing changed These elections have merely confirmed what was already known about the political relationship of forces in Iraq. The political weight of the shia clerisy led by Sistani was already apparent in the decision to concede elections and in Najaf in August 2004. The Kurds are de facto sovereign in their territory, but cannot admit it because of the Turkish threat. No-one except purblind Washington ideologues ever believed that the exile parties had significant mass bases within Iraq - Allawi stands out because he has support within the puppet proto-state and appeals to nostalgia for the relative peace and prosperity of the Ba'ath regime. The guerrillas have significant mass support, but no ideology which would allow them to break out of their limitations and pose a political alternative for the whole of Iraq. The Worker-communists have well described the situation as a "dark scenario". The idea of a state based on sharia is possible in Iran because of relative religious homogeneity; in Sudan it serves merely as a superficial ideology for a conventional military dictatorship. Under the conditions of Iraq it is a recipe for a descent into local warlordism which is already half-accomplished. However marginal or invisible the communists have been in these elections, a real way forward for Iraq is only possible through political democracy, coupled with strong central planning in the economy to put the people back to work: that is, through communist measures. There is a fundamental precondition to any solution for Iraq's problems: getting the imperialist troops out. The fundamental task of the workers' movement in Britain is to fight for the withdrawal of imperialist troops. Even if the imperialists are themselves seeking an exit strategy, our fight to get the troops out can contribute to reducing the destructive effects of their presence. But we also have a responsibility to fight for support for the fragmented and marginalised Iraqi workers' movement. It is only this movement which potentially offers a strategic way out for Iraq. Mike Macnair