Encouraging signs on the road to a new Iraq

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 January, 2005, 12:00am

Sovereignty was handed over to an Iraqi government in June, but that did little to change perceptions inside and outside the country that Iraqis were still not in charge of their own future. Yesterday's election should help to change both the views and the reality.

By midday in Iraq, the broad outlines of the election were already emerging. A respectable turnout was seen in Shi'ite-dominated and mixed Shi'ite-Sunni areas. Kurds were voting in high numbers, as expected. Insurgents made good on their threats to scar the elections with violence but voters were by and large not intimidated. By the afternoon the headline turnout figures looked high enough to lend the poll some legitimacy.

The huge caveat remains the Sunni Muslims who form 20 per cent of the population but for decades enjoyed a monopoly on power. With threats of violence hanging over their heads and clerics' boycott calls ringing in their ears, the turnout in Sunni areas was relatively low. Sunnis also know that in a democracy, the demographics are against them, discouraging voting and explaining why many are quietly supporting Sunni militants who have been hell-bent on wrecking the elections.

The once-oppressed Shi'ites form 60 per cent of the population and are set to hold the balance of power, hence their enthusiasm for the elections.

The key question now is to what extent the new government will involve Sunnis in national politics. If the Sunnis feel their voice is being heard, it could mark a turning point in the grim battle against the insurgents. If they are shut out, it could put the country on the road to civil war.

An enlightened approach to dealing with the religious and ethnic patchwork found in Iraq has cemented the semi-autonomous status of Kurdish areas while still allowing for Kurdish participation in the national government. The same principle could be applied to resolving the Shi'ite-Sunni divide and addressing the concerns of the Sunni minority.

The muted campaign leading up to yesterday's vote and the tight security surrounding it left little room for extreme optimism. When debates did happen, they were conducted in television studios. Few politicians dared to make public appearances. Some parties did not reveal their candidate lists, and no names appeared on ballots. Militants put up posters vowing a bloodbath at polling stations. A three-day holiday has been declared, while borders were closed and unofficial traffic banned on election day.

These are extraordinary circumstances under which to conduct an election. Any turnout close to those of developed economies in peacetime has to be seen as an encouraging sign and says much about the average Iraqi's determination to vote. By late yesterday, such an outcome looked ever more likely.

After the ballots are counted, of course, many of the long-standing challenges will remain. An insurgency that grew more determined over the past year poses a threat, especially to a poorly trained and inadequate Iraqi security force. A strong desire among Iraqis to see American and other international troops leave has to be balanced against the government's ability to provide security in their absence. Of equal concern are basic services - electricity, water, petrol supplies - and jobs. The promises of order and economic development that were made at the time of Saddam Hussein's removal 20 months ago and renewed in June have to be delivered.

Then there is the constitution. The document written by the new national assembly will shape the country's future. When the votes are counted - and the parliamentarians named - it will become clearer whether Iraq's future lies in pluralistic secularism or if voters will opt for a more sectarian and fundamentalist path. National and regional stability would be boosted if the result favoured the former.

It would be difficult to underestimate the hurdles standing in the way of developing a stable, democratic Iraq. But yesterday's high turnout, despite the threat of violence, bodes well for future progress.