Elections are no panacea for Iraq

When I was organising the international observer team for the elections in the Kurdish region of Iraq in June 1992, I met an extremely frustrated journalist. Just before he arrived in Irbil he had managed to get the first interview ever with the key warlord currently besieging the Afghanistan capital, Kabul. Then came the perennial problem of how to get his story to his newspaper. He knew that, for safety, he had to reach Kabul before nightfall. As he drove on he realised that this was not going to be possible and, as night fell, he arrived at a roadblock in the hills above the city.

The local commander readily agreed that he could continue along the road, but before he set out he had to sign a form. "What is the form?" the journalist asked, "Oh, it just states that you were alive when you left here. I'm fed up of being accused of killing people. You see those lights on the hill on your right? They are my troops but I cannot get a message to them and so they will fire at you. And the regime's troops in the valley will, of course, also fire at you. But you are free to continue." "Hmm, on reflection, I think I'll stay here." said the journalist, who never managed to file his interview.

The situation in the two countries is now somewhat reversed. Afghanistan has an elected president, and peace, albeit partial and somewhat precarious, but Iraq is in chaos. In the narrow sense of holding a ballot, the Afghanistan elections were a success. Despite considerable difficulties, a very high proportion of electors were registered, including a majority of women eligible to vote. As is usually the case, polling day itself was peaceful, marred only by the kidnapping of three election monitors, one of them British. Finally, the result was clear cut, with the interim president, Hamid Karzai, securing an overall majority, despite being unable to campaign in most of the country.

There were many complaints about the conduct of the elections, but these followed traditional lines. I have never been at an election in which indelible ink has been used to mark each voter's finger or thumb where there have not been claims that the ink could be washed off - with a remarkable range of alleged agents, even including Coca Cola. The real problem, which is again widely spread, is the manipulation of the media in the run up to polling day.

So far, so good. But what has to be remembered is that elections are not an end in themselves, and much of what we in Britain take for granted is simply unknown in most of the world. For instance, we in the west are alarmed to read that in Iraq and Afghanistan - and in many other countries - every adult male is armed. But what does one do to protect one's family when there is no effective police service at the disposal of a legitimate government? The concept of a "999" emergency number is hardly known in the developing world, even if there is a viable telephone network. We accept that the civil service, the police and the armed forces, are loyal to the elected government, but in many countries these key organisations retain loyalty to political forces, rendering the task of enforcing government authority exceptionally difficult. This is the now the problem in Afghanistan - elections are a key "tool" in the legitimisation of that authority, and in the development of democracy, but no more. There is a long road ahead to peace and progress across the country.

Are there lessons for Iraq from Afghanistan? Indeed so, but they are not all positive. They demonstrate that there is a potential electoral benefit for a leader brave enough to take on the role of interim president, and that elections can be organised in a country with very little infrastructure. But Afghanistan is not Iraq. First, it has existed as a country for centuries and, despite the existence of warlords controlling many regions, it has an identity which has enabled it to repulse every attempt to invade and occupy it. In comparison, Iraq is a modern creation, dating only from 1920, with no real national identity or cohesion.

Prior to the American attacks of October 2001 Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban whose obscurantist and vicious Islamic regime terrorised and enslaved the population. It is significant that the Taliban's brand of extreme fundamentalism appears now to be widely rejected by the Afghan people. Its rule, whilst pervasive, was, in retrospect, superficial and Afghan society has reasserted itself. In Iraq, by contrast, the fall of Saddam Hussain has left a huge vacuum. There are areas with strong community structures, notably the Kurdish north, which has had a de facto independence for over ten years, but the widespread lack of even the minimum of security required to carry out electoral registration makes the organisation of meaningful elections extremely doubtful. Elections can be held without a register - as in South Africa in 1994 - but they require a general sense of co-operation and goodwill across the country. These are qualities that are palpably absent in Iraq.

Tremendous reliance is being placed on elections to create stability in Iraq, and this dependence has been encouraged by the Afghanistan example. It is almost desperation, given the failure of every other initiative, and it places pressures on the very concept of elections that they simply cannot deliver. Iraq is a disaster, and in the continuation of that disaster the re-election of George W Bush on 2 November will prove to be a much more significant election than either that in Afghanistan or, if and when they happen, elections in Iraq.

7 November 2004