The Possibility of Holding Iraqi Elections in January 2005
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this debate and the political considerations driving each side, we turn to two Iraqi-Americans: Ahmed al-Rahim, who worked in Iraq this year and last advising the coalition provisional authority on education and political issues; and Anas Shallal, founder of the group Iraqi-Americans for Peaceful Alternatives.
Joining them also is Eric Davis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, and author of “Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq.”
Welcome, gentlemen. Anas Shallal, should these elections be postponed?
ANAS SHALLAL: I really think that the time for these elections is not right now. I think there needs a lot more building process to take place before the elections take place. I think the one issue that’s been sorely missed in this whole process is an issue of reconciliation. The element of reconciliation is so important we seem to only turn to a military strategy when it needs a political solution.
MARGARET WARNER: But what evidence is there… I mean, we’re in the run-up to elections now. They’re supposed to be registering voters; political parties are supposed to be getting their ballots – I mean, their candidate lists in. What evidence is there that the violence and other factors are interfering with creating the conditions for credible elections?
ANAS SHALLAL: Well, I mean, already several polling places where people go to register have had to close because of violence so I mean if you continue with this kind of upsurge, I mean, we saw what happened in Ukraine when they didn’t understand that the elections were legitimate, the violence started to break out there. Imagine, this is a huge turning point for Iraq — a major, you know, time line. Unless it’s done correctly, it will forever be a blemish on Iraq reconstruction, rebuilding.
MARGARET WARNER: And you’re saying that right now you don’t believe the Sunni population will really participate?
ANAS SHALLAL: It’s not just the Sunni population. I mean, we’re already seeing the Kurds and there are also Sunnis, of course. We’re also seeing the Kurds. There are some Shiite groups also talking about the possibility of not voting.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Al-Rahim, what’s your view of this? I mean, if people aren’t able to register, if parties aren’t able to register, is there a danger in proceeding on Jan. 30?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, people are registering and parties are registering. I mean, the deadline is tomorrow. It might be extended to allow Sunni groups and other groups to register as well up until Dec. 10. But people are registering. And I think we have to begin thinking creatively about how we’re going to have those elections.
We might want to stagger them over several weeks where we have our troops and Iraqi security forces in one governate or two and then moving on to the next to allow Iraqis to vote. But I think we should proceed with the elections in any case.
MARGARET WARNER: And staying with you for a minute, what is your sense of where the Sunni leadership is here?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, I think the Sunni leadership now is beginning to realize that time is coming to an end and that they are not as prepared as they thought they would like to be by this point. They definitely want to be part of any future government. The question is whether they’re going to have enough time to register and whether the security situation in the Anbar governate in particular is going to be good enough for elections.
MARGARET WARNER: Eric Davis, give us your assessment of the political considerations that are driving really all three of these major groups in this debate. Start with those calling for a delay.
ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think that strong arguments could be made on both sides as to whether the election should be held on Jan. 30 or should be postponed. Obviously the strong argument, and Mr. Shallal has indicated that, is that under conditions of the insurgency, the elections can’t really be held in any meaningful sense.
However, I think if we look at the overall situation, there are several reasons why we really do have to proceed. First of all, there is the rule of law. If the elections are not held, the already fragile democracy in Iraq I think will be dealt an important blow. Secondly we’ve heard that 98 percent or 90 percent of the population really want the elections to move forward. And I think that’s true.
And thirdly, I think we have the problem that we may undermine the power of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who has put a lot of his prestige on the line to make sure that these elections are indeed held on Jan. 30.
MARGARET WARNER: But if you’re assessing – I mean, each group here has a political self-interest, no?
ERIC DAVIS: Yes, but I think that the Shiite population, which has been excluded from political participation for centuries, feels now that after a year-and-a-half of the fall of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, it really is time to have elected leaders so that laws can continue to be made. Now I think that there are certain ways in which compromises could be reached.
For example, I think Mr. al-Rahim just pointed to the fact that there could be rolling elections so if conditions aren’t appropriate in the Sunni areas, these elections could be held there perhaps at a slightly later time. Further, I think the Shiite delegates who are elected to the 275-person assembly could indicate that until everyone feels comfortable with the elected body that no major decisions will be made.
So I think that certain compromises could be reached that would both allow us to have the elections and to make everyone feel comfortable.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Shallal, if the elections were postponed, would it not send a signal to the insurgents that essentially they’ve had a victory here; they’ve succeeded in postponing the day when Iraqis will be at least taking the first step to electing their own government?
ANAS SHALLAL: I would say on the contrary. I think these elections the way they’re set up, they’re really sort of brewing a recipe for disaster. I think what’s happening is a lot of the parties are being divided along ethnic and religious lines. Most people don’t know what the parties really stand for other than the fact that they’re Shiite or Sunni or Kurds. And that’s not really enough to bring about a political transformation for a country.
It’s setting up a situation that is going to be forever these divisions that have been there for centuries are only going to be entrenched and politicized and made into sort of a part of Iraqi culture, and instead of sort of walking away from that and talking about ideologies of the different parties, we’re talking about, is this party Sunni, is this party Shia? Who are we going to vote for depending on what your religion is?
MARGARET WARNER: And so why would waiting six months change that situation?
ANAS SHALLAL: Again I think what needs to happen is some kind of reconciliation process; bring the different warring factions, the people that are feeling left out, the people that are creating the resistance or part of the resistance, bring them into the fold. Have some conversations behind the scenes.
If we continue with these high profile sort of time lines, I think we’re bound to find ourselves always going back two steps after we take a step forward. We need to be able to do some kind of reconciliation to move forward.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. al-Rahim, explain first of all your assessment of Prime Minister Allawi’s — I said in my set-up piece that he’s walking a fine line here. He went to the meeting on Friday but he didn’t… his party didn’t sign the petition calling for a delay.
He’s now holding this meeting tomorrow to which he’s invited all religious and political leaders though the agenda seems kind of vague. What is his role here? What is his self-interest here? How does he balance the two?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, I mean, I think he’s really of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, he wants elections to proceed as planned because that’s what the constitution says. And on the other hand, he’s worried about his own political future, whether he’ll be elected or not.
His party is made up of Shiites, Sunnis, mainly secularists — Baathists. You know, he’s concerned whether they’re going to get enough votes. So it’s not really clear which way he’s going to go, but at least I think being the prime minister he’s going to proceed along the path of having the elections Jan. 30.
ANAS SHALLAL: Let’s remember also that his party was actually calling for a delay for the elections — his own party.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, they went to the meeting but then they didn’t call for the delay.
AHMED AL-RAHIM: But they retracted those statements.
ANAS SHALLAL: They retracted the statements obviously but they did suggest the possibility of having a delay. I think that’s been floated around. I think not just… it’s not just divided along Sunni, Kurd, Shia lines. It’s also being divided against party lines.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, and Mr. al-Rahim, also explain the Kurds’ role in this. Again they went to that meeting, joined in the call for the delay. Then they backtracked over the weekend.
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, you know, the Kurds have an interest in preserving the constitution. On the one hand, they’re afraid that the Shiites will have the majority in Iraq and that somehow that will undermine their autonomy in Kurdistan Iraq.
You know, on the other hand, they do not want to postpone the elections because by doing that, they’re going to be going against the constitution, and that very same constitution which guarantees them autonomy in the North and also guarantees them a veto on the right… on the final draft of the constitution. So it’s a very fine line for the Kurds as well. And I think, you know, ultimately they will… they have already indicated that they’re going to side with having the elections on Jan. 30.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Davis, a couple of you have said in this conversation, well, if elections are held and if the Shiites get the most votes or whatever, it’s a given, is it not, that this will be a transfer of power to the Shiites?
ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think that’s one thing that can’t be avoided. They’re 60 percent of the population after all. I think one of the fallacies here is that all of these communities march in communal lock step. That’s absolutely not true.
Large segments of the Shia population traditionally have supported parties from the Communist Party to the Islamist parties. Once Shiites are elected to parliament they not going to speak with one voice. I think that that’s also true of the Sunni and the Kurdish communities as well.
MARGARET WARNER: But is it fair to say that the Shiites right now are better organized politically than the Sunni community?
ERIC DAVIS: Yes, and I think that certainly is a concern that the Sunnis have. It’s much harder for the Sunni parties, political parties, to organize themselves given the fact that a violent insurgency is taking place in their areas.
But let’s also remember that there are areas like Baghdad and Mosul and Kirkuk and Basra where we have electoral districts which will include more than just Sunnis, Kurds or Shias. And again this idea that Iraq operates according to some ethnic calculus I think is something that we really have to question.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor, one other question for you. What is the American interest here or are there competing interests for the United States?
ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think the United States has staked a lot of its prestige on these elections taking place on Jan. 30. And I think that that has been undergirded by the fact that they have seen the power that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shia clerics can exercise if they really become actively involved in politics. And I think they would like to see al-Sistani and his colleagues really remain more on the sidelines and not get actively involved.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Mr. Shallal, your point would be that, as I understand it, that the Americans should not want an election outcome if it’s one that isn’t seen as legitimate by a significant percentage of the Iraqi population? That’s the danger?
ANAS SHALLAL: I think you’re right about the divided interests right now because the only organized parties really right now are the religious parties, the ones that can call their people behind a certain person like Ali Sistani. So that’s why I think it’s hard. If you have an election you’re bound to end up with an Iran-style theocracy.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, on that provocative note we’re going to have to end it. But thank you all three very much.