TCS Daily

Reasons for Hope in Iraq's Critical Election

By Richard S. Williamson - January 26, 2005 12:00 AM

All people want freedom. They want to live in societies that are secure, just; and where hopes and dreams can be realized. But securing freedom is not easy. It can be dangerous. It is difficult. And it is messy. Yet it is well worth it.

In recent months the march of freedom has advanced. In Afghanistan, millions of Muslims turned out to vote notwithstanding violence and intimidation. In Ukraine, people demonstrated in the streets in protest against an effort to steal the election. They prevailed. Even the Palestinians held free and fair elections.

Now we approach Iraq's election for the Transitional National Assembly. The violence is rising. Saddam loyalists, dead enders and international terrorists are increasing their carnage. Some Sunni leaders are urging an election boycott. What will happen and what will it mean?

For 35 years the Iraqi people lived under Saddam's brutal dictatorship. The violence was capricious and it was vicious. There were no rules but the shifting whims, insecurity, and vain glory of Saddam. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds were gassed to death. A hundred thousand Shia in the southern marshland were poisoned. Tens of thousands of people were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, raped and killed.

Judy Van Rest, Executive Vice President of the International Republican Institute, who spent over a year in Baghdad with the Iraqi Provisional Authority working with women to build civil society, told me about visiting one of Saddam's many mass graves. Standing on a small mound, before her the mass grave stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. The insecurity imposed by Saddam's reign of terror was wide and it was deep. It will take time for the people victimized by Saddam's brutality to develop confidence in themselves and in the rule of law.

Understandably, a sense of insecurity and hesitancy remain. But many Iraqis are finding their voices. And many are active participants in this election process. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute indicates that despite the insurgents' threats and Iraq's lack of democratic tradition, 80 percent of Iraqis say they are likely to vote.

With over 50 percent of the population Shia, they will win the majority of seats. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Shia plan to vote. Some are concerned that the Iraqi Shiites are too closely aligned with the Iranian Shiites. Some are. But there also is a great deal of friction between the Shiites of Iraq and those of Iran.

Of course there are some bad Shiites, but many are good people who want a sovereign Iraq and not three countries. So they will work for compromise with the minority Kurds and Sunnis. The Kurds represent about 25 percent of the population. The Kurdish area of Iraq has had semi-autonomy for many years. Again, the poll indicates large numbers of Iraqi Kurds plan to vote. They want their interests well represented in the drafting of a new Iraqi constitution.

The Sunni are slightly less than 25 percent of the population. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni and many were favored during Saddam's rule. Many Sunni are concerned they will be disadvantaged in an election where they are so outnumbered by Shia and Kurds. The Sunni community has been targeted for the harshest threats of violence if they vote. And some Sunni leaders have urged an election boycott.

Undoubtedly, this will dampen Sunni voter turnout. Some predict a Sunni turnout of 5-8 percent. It probably will not be that low, but it will be a modest turnout. Ultimately the Iraqi people must choose democracy. They must take the step to vote. If most Sunnis do not vote, that's their choice. They will learn the costs of not participating. And, I expect, in the fall constitutional referendum more Sunnis will vote; and more still in the assembly election to be held by year's end. The high level of violence will continue up to and on election day. Undoubtedly some polling stations will be targeted.

Nonetheless, on election day, we can expect that over two-thirds of Iraqis will vote. The 275 member Iraq Transitional National Assembly will be elected and it will have legitimacy. It will not solve the problems in Iraq but it will be an important step forward. Iraqis will have more control over their destiny.

After their election, there will be a lull in violence as the enemies of freedom try to figure out who they now should target. Then the insurgents will continue their violence. The insecurity in Iraq is bad, and it will continue to be bad. But delaying the election will not help. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis wants to move forward. They have choices to make. And they are prepared to vote.

This election is not the solution to Iraq's problems. But it is a step forward toward a new sovereign Iraq where the people have a say in the constitution that will govern them, where the rule of law will take hold, where the people select their leaders, and where compromise and cooperation will be the rhythm of life.

While their insecurity remains their greatest concern, by a margin of 6 to 1 the Iraqi people believe things will be better one year from now. The democratic election on January 30th will be an important step toward that better future.

The author served as Ambassador and Alternate Representative to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs, 2002-2003.



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