Ballot box - its place in the Iraq jigsaw

I recall a Labour candidate some years ago in a small Lancashire town who, in his election address, criticised the potholes in a particular local road. As soon as the leaflet began to be delivered, the Conservative Council quickly resurfaced the road. Completely unfazed by this swift response, the candidate immediately ordered a rubber stamp with the words "Elections work wonders" and stamped every one of the remaining leaflets! Such a technique may work on potholes but it is unlikely to be effective in Iraq. There is much too great a faith in the miracle working powers of the ballot box in countries torn apart by conflict.

Without sufficient democratic structures in a country, elections may at best provide a breathing space but can even make the situation worse. There are examples in Africa, including Zimbabwe and Sudan, where, with political parties based on tribes, elections simply provided legitimacy for the largest tribe to dominate and exploit the others. Paradoxically, elections are the result of democracy rather than the creators of democracy. By that I mean that elections are an integral component of a society in which voluntary organisations thrive. In Britain anyone who is a member of a trade union, a professional body, a housing association, a parent-teacher group or any of the kaleidoscope of community organisations, is used to voting almost week by week to elect one management committee or another. We have a "cult" of elections in which public elections fit - perhaps too comfortably - into our mental schedule. In most emerging democracies it is very different. What my late colleague Richard Wainwright used to call the "warp and the weft of civil society" is largely absent and citizens vote perhaps only once every five years for parliament or president.

Applying all this to Iraq produces a somewhat bleak picture. It was only created as a country in 1918 out of the post First World War settlement. Until then it had been three provinces - Mosul, Basra and Baghdad - of the Turkish Empire and the region was simply known as Mesopotamia. Saddam Hussein  came to power in 1979 but there had been no legitimate elections before him, and certainly none since. In common with many of its neighbouring countries, Iraq is an artificial concoction shoved together to meet a political expedient. With its three distinct communities, the Kurds in the north, the majority Shi'as in the south, and the minority Sunnis in the centre, it possesses no natural unity likely to produce political parties based on any sort of political philosophy. It is much more likely that the main parties will be based on the three ethnic communities, whose members will naturally feel it imperative to vote for "their" candidates. Consequently elections in Iraq are likely to produce a parliament of representatives sitting in three ethnic groups.

As in Northern Ireland, there will no doubt be some constitutional settlement intended to prevent one group governing on its own, but, as in Northern Ireland, this will prove exceptionally difficult to make work.

What of the practical problems of holding elections in Iraq? The process itself could divert the dissident forces and, if used productively, the breathing space thus gained could be extremely valuable. Some of the officials involved have stated that elections cannot be held until there is a constitution in place to determine what elections are for. This is certainly incorrect, and in similar circumstances elections are often held for a "representative assembly" charged with the task of producing a draft constitution and with running certain basic functions, such as essential security.

Early elections will certainly need an independent electoral commission and a basic electoral law. The law usually comes first, not least in that it sets up the electoral commission, but in the Iraq situation the urgent priority is to form a commission with representatives from all the major political forces. If this is done successfully, with a clear mandate to hold early elections, it might just bring peace to a troubled country. This commission's first task would be the adoption of a provisional electoral law, adapting one of the "off the peg" drafts that are easily available.

Drawing up a voters' register would take some nine months from the moment the electoral commission set the work in progress - and would cost around $25 million! The election itself could take place two months later, at an additional cost of perhaps $50 million. Election logistics are exceptionally complex and do not come cheap. Technical assistance could come from the UN which is well used to such work.

Elections can be held without an electoral register, as they were in South Africa in 1994. Indeed, I was the Chief Observer at the elections in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in June 1992 which were conducted without a register. In both cases the security of the ballot relied on the use of indelible ink to mark each voter's finger. There are additional problems involved in conducting elections in this way, not least in that it is impossible to predict accurately how many electors will turn up at each polling station, but it can be done if there is an over-riding requirement of early elections for the sake of peace and security.

All this may seem very complex and difficult, but in the context of the vivid problems of Iraq, early elections have a definite role to play. They may not work wonders, but they could divert the men of violence from the seemingly inexorable tale of woe that passes for life in an occupied country. Certainly the ballot is infinitely preferable to the bullet.

15 February 2004