Iraq: an election like no other

Violence may not stop Iraq's election on Sunday, but, equally, elections will not stop Iraq's violence. The painful and unrelenting misery of the Iraqi people is in stark contrast to the bright future promised by George W Bush and Tony Blair when they were making the case for invading the country. Politics is all about judgement, and theirs was manifestly wrong. The tentative intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was magnified by the politicians, and the UN inspection team searching for such weapons was prevented from finishing its task. The naïvety of those who believed that removing a ruthless leader would merit the grateful thanks of the Iraqi people has been exposed in the brutal evidence on the ground. Small wonder that the number of those in opinion polls who continue to support the invasion continues to decline.

As so often around the world, the poor UN is there picking up the pieces and its election experts are in the thick of it. It is easy to see how much depends on this election for Bush and Blair, and how desperate they are to hold it at any cost, from the way that the election rules have been set aside. The last date for voter registration was 15 December, to give time for the lists to be published and checked, but, in whole tracts of the country, including Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, no-one had registered by that final date. The law was then changed to permit voters to register when - or, more accurately, if - they turn up to vote on Sunday, thus preventing any check on the electoral register which is a key factor in the legitimacy of an election. Even amongst expatriate Iraqi citizens only around a quarter registered.

The security measures are draconian. The country's borders closed for three days, a ban on driving between provinces, and an extension of curfews - all this in a post-Saddam Hussein country expected to leap at the opportunity for democracy.

The names of the 7795 candidates for the 275 seats in the Transitional National Assembly are not published, but, then it hardly matters as the voters will be voting for parties and not for candidates. The whole country is a single constituency so that the 120 or so parties each put forward a list of names up to the total number be elected. No wonder it has been called "the mother of all ballot papers." Every third name on the list must be a woman, to ensure that a minimum of 25% of the seats will be held by women. The percentage of votes polled by each party will be assessed in order to divide the 275 seats between them. The correct number of names will then be taken in order from each list. There are also separate ballots for provincial assemblies and for the autonomous Kurdish Assembly in the north - where I was Chief Observer for the first elections in 1992.

The authorities are hoping that the fact of elections will be the elusive talisman that produces peace, just as the capture of Saddam Hussein was going to be, and then the transfer of authority to the interim government. Certainly, in terms of powers, the assembly will be extremely limited and its main task will be draw up a constitution for submission to a referendum by 15 October next, with further elections based on that constitution on 15 December. Somehow the authorities have to go through the whole agonising and inflammatory process twice more this year.

This is an election like no other. I have been involved in a number of post-dictatorship elections, including Yemen, Romania, Serbia, Georgia, Malawi and Indonesia, and in none of these countries was there a significant security problem on polling day. A tense atmosphere in some areas, certainly, and some efforts to subvert the electoral process, but in every case candidates and parties were able to campaign openly and observers were universally accepted.

The key difference between Iraq and these countries and, for that matter, Afghanistan, which George W Bush insists on quoting, is that local power brokers and warlords often participated and, if not, at least were prepared to guarantee security. I recall that in Malawi the Chief of Staff of the military came to see me privately to assure me that in no circumstances would the army take sides and, in particular, that it would not back any attempt by the Banda regime to remain in power if it lost the election. In Yemen I had a breakfast meeting with the newly elected speaker of the parliament who, I was told, had a private army of 20,000!

An additional problem for Iraq, not so acutely felt in other countries, is its artificiality and its lack of history as a sovereign state. Created only in 1920, it was formerly Mesopotamia and comprised three provinces of the Ottoman empire, roughly corresponding to the Kurdish, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim areas today. Iraq has never had a democratic regime and Saddam Hussein was only the last of a series of dictators who took the view that the country could only be held together by force. The situation after Sunday's election will to a large extent test that belief. If the majority Shi'ite population votes for parties that proceed to dominate the assembly and to emphasise ethnic and religious differences an internal civil war could well be added to the current war against the occupying forces.

The prospect that democracy as the occupiers know it is simply not feasible in Iraq would then have to be faced. Concepts of government and opposition are irrelevant when ethnicity or tribalism is the basis of politics. Our experience in Northern Ireland and its enforced power sharing vividly epitomises the problem.

The flaws in the process and the lack of observers will ensure that the legitimacy of the election will be questioned whatever the electoral turnout but the likely differences between areas will certainly exacerbate the status of the poll. I expect there to be extremely high turnouts in areas that are relatively secure, including, for instance, much of Kurdistan in the north, but very poor levels of voting elsewhere, particularly in Sunni areas. My experience of Iraq and of similar countries is that the bush telegraph works with remarkable efficiency and that this often leads to communal decisions on security issues. For this reason there will be big differences in electoral participation between cities and between regions. One thing is sure: Sunday's election and its aftermath are certainly not going to herald a new dawn for democracy in the region, and will not help Bush and Blair one bit.

Finally, I recall talking to a crowd in the market place in Sulaimanya in the Iraqi Kurdistan election of May 1992. I asked whether they were going to vote the next day. "Yes," they replied with great enthusiasm, "but only after dark." I looked puzzled. "Well, you see those soldiers on the ridge up there," they continued. With difficulty I could just make the figures out high above the town. "If we go to the polling station in the daytime they'll shoot us, but don't worry - we'll go at night!" I reckon that every Iraqi who votes on Sunday deserves a medal.

27 January 2005