Election Awakening: The Lessons and Model of Iraq

Bechara Nassar Charbel: Election Awakening: The Lessons and Model of Iraq

  • 24 March 2010

One can blame the former US administration of President George Bush for a thousand and one reasons. One can also criticize its ways in handling the situation in Iraq after it toppled the Saddam regime and relieved Baghdad from the iron grip of the dictator, but one must not be unmindful of some of the benefits of this occupation. The most important among the benefits is the fever of elections, a fever that the country never experienced when ballot boxes opened only for supporters of the regime, the fever of waiting for hours and days following the elections to know who won and who lost, the fever of press conferences of the election commission.

The fall and disintegration of Iraq into its primal constituents and the outbreak of sectarian and terrorist violence does not mean that the decision to remove Saddam was wrong, or that it was better for Iraq to have remained in the grip of tyranny and oppression. The price paid by Iraqis for emerging out of the dark phase was high, but the very fact that fair and transparent elections were held again—despite some flaws and violations—is a sign of good times ahead. It raises the prospects for the rebuilding of the country and its institutions based on diversity and recognition of all sides through free democratic choice—albeit the results might possibly produce the rise of anti-democratic elements.

Elections cannot offer magical solutions for the structural problems facing Arab countries and many other countries in the Third World. These countries have many theocratic regimes and are riddled with extremist orientations that view elections as a means of controlling minorities and people with contrarian views, especially when it is not possible to control such elements by the force of arms. However, there is no other means possible to deter exclusivist orientations, as the democratic mechanism possesses resistance against any deviation from such a path, especially the path that represent extinct models that have caused nations and peoples to pay the price of oppression, bloodshed and instability.

Democracy needs democrats. This is true but it does not mean that elections cannot include groups that oppose the very idea of power-sharing and use elections to seize control. More often than not, democracy is able to engage with elements with good or bad intentions towards it. Several instances in history point to the fact that democracy can temper extremist tendencies and even make its enemies accept the idea of winning and losing.

There are many examples of the setbacks democracy has faced in several countries due to foreign interventions or due to the ambitions of political parties and leaders, beginning with Fascism and Nazism that paved the way for World War II. Then we had the Latin American experience and the democratic experiment in Arab countries in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Just a few months ago Mauritania suffered a coup. We should also not forget the illegitimate weapons in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has prevented the majority bloc, which won the elections last June, from ruling the country. However, these examples in our region should not force us to concede that violence has the upper hand over peace, or that the ruled deserve their rulers.

The Perestroika experience presents a striking example of the inability of dictatorship from continuing forever and is proof that the opening of a window could rid the whole house of foul air. In this regard, the suppression of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran and the theft of millions of Iranian votes in the June 12 elections of last year do not mark the end of the road to the path of change in Iran, irrespective of the time it takes for overcoming the obstacles. The presidential elections that brought back Ahmadinejad to power mark a critical event in the history of the “Islamic Republic”. It has raised debate over the legitimacy of the revolution—the “Rule of the Faqih”—by bringing to light the nation’s need to live in accordance with the present age, and provide its people the chance of a normal life that is blessed with peace, progress and advancement.

It is noteworthy that in these elections—Iraqis voted in large numbers despite the violence and bombings by Al-Qaeda fanatics and the vestiges of Saddam’s Baath party. It was also remarkable to note Iraqis living outside the country participating in the elections in large numbers in order to contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq. These scenes are very different from those botched with blood or those that glorified leaders of a single party.

There is no denying that that these elections have been far from ideal because the voting has been influenced by sectarian and tribal considerations. However, the sheer fact that a citizen can choose and can even influence policies is sufficient to prepare the country for a more advanced phase where programs supersede sectarian and popular positions, and positive change replaces the negativity of despair.

In Arab countries, which have not yet established state institutions for democracy and where there is no durable system for the peaceful transfer of power, democracy needs several years of care and protection in order for it to take root through requisite agreements and compromises. This is possible if the constituents of these countries get convinced about the importance of the preservation of the state, which is undermined by repeated civil wars and oppressive regimes. New-born democracies require international protection and immunity from regional intervention of totalitarian regimes that seek to carve their influence outside their borders and fear the spread of free elections passing on to their own populace.

Despite new hopes, Iraq remains in intensive care unit. The results could only be judged following the outcome of the political process. If Iraqis have learnt the lessons from the period of infighting and divisions that followed the fall of Saddam, and if they seek unity based on nationhood, pluralism and freedom then the “sickness of Iraq” will be cured and health and life would spread to the adjoining areas. If Iraqis fail in meeting their responsibilities and in withstanding the baneful regional interventions in their homeland, then the contagion of disintegration and darkness would spread to more than one place. It is their responsibility in the first place and then the responsibility of people in the neighboring countries who would also bear the consequences.

In spite of the aforementioned, it can be said that the region is going through an electoral awakening. Iran is debating what happens to Musavi. Egypt is waiting for presidential elections next year. Lebanon seems to be struggling against the early death of its election outcome. It is true that disruptive and violent forces remain potent and are dangerously armed with their messages of darkness, but the will for freedom pervades and has many supporters and votaries. This is a struggle that perennially affects societies and the cycle of life.