Crucial questions

The January 30 elections held in Iraq under US auspices will return 275 members to the National Assembly, which will be responsible for drafting a constitution, to be put to a referendum in the autumn. It will also appoint a three-person presidency, which will pick a new prime minister. After the invasion in March 2003 by the US-led forces, the polls have begun another chapter in Iraq. But it is unclear who will be the ultimate winners. The present elections mark, in the words of UN secretary general Kofi Annan, only a first step in deciding Iraq’s future. The coming months will be crucial. Indeed, the polls were held on schedule and with less death and destruction than predicted by some. The average voter turnout of about 60 per cent should be considered good, even by American and British standards, and all the more so despite fear, intimidation, shootings, bombings and such stringent security checks as virtually brought the whole country to a standstill. As predicted, turnouts were specially high in the Kurdish north and the largely Shia south. But most of the Sunni-majority areas wore a deserted look, including Saddam Hussen’s native town Tikrit.

Given the difficult circumstances in Iraq, it is hard to say with confidence that, in all respects, the polls represent the popular mandate. For example, the Sunnis largely boycotted the polls while the Shias voted in large numbers. Moreover, it is uncertain that the elections will eventually lead to the good of the Iraqis, who are yet to taste the fruits of democracy. There are some vital questions that need an answer before making a judgement as to whether the Iraqis will eventually have something to cheer about, such as the final shape of Iraq’s constitutional settlement, when the foreign occupation forces will leave, and when violence will stop. Iraq’s US-picked interim prime minister Iyad Allawi benefited from, among other things, massive name-recognition whereas most candidates had little chance or time to get themselves known in a security situation where campaigning was virtually impossible. Allawi is clearly Washington’s favourite.

The next Iraqi government will naturally have a greater legitimacy as it can claim the popular mandate than the present one. But it is a paradox that despite all this, 150,000 occupation troops will have a right to stay in Iraq whatever the Iraqis, its National Assembly or its goverment may want. It is also crucial whether the Americans would easily accept the turn of events in Iraq if it did not go exactly according to what they wanted. And it is difficult, too, for many to judge how the Iraqi people’s sovereign collective wish might be fully represented by the democratic exercises held under the sway of the invading powers.