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December 11, 2005

Iraqi Elections: 10 Key Things to Look Out for During and After
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Iraqi_vote We all know this week's elections for a permanent Iraqi parliament are important, but what tea leaves are worth focusing on to determine whether this will be a watershed for democracy, another halting and ambivalent step in Iraq's tortured transition, or the beginning of the end of Iraq as a unitary state.    Here are 10 things to watch for after the election to see whether the balloting winds up being as transformative as the Bush Administration hopes.

1.  Performance and Cohesion of the United Iraqi Alliance - This coalition of 18 conservative religious Shiite parties nominated current Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.  If it prevails in its strongholds of Iraq's 8 southern provinces and Baghdad, this means increasing Iranian influence in Iraq.   If the alliance falls short of the 45-50% of seats projected or fragments during post-vote horsetrading, that may bode well for the emergence of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi or another secular moderate, and for the US's continued strong sway.  See here for more.

2.  Performance of the Iraqi National List - This is Allawi's party, and represents the US's best bet for a friendly Iraqi leadership that will cooperate with our efforts to engineer a smooth exit and sustain our influence long-term.   Allawi got 14% of the vote in January running as a sitting Prime Minister.  If that number rises, it may suggest that secularism in Iraq has legs.

3.  Speed with Which a New Government is Formed Post-Vote - This took three months after the January elections for an interim Iraqi Parliament.  Petty infighting ruled the day, and momentum toward political reform and integration stalled.   Now, the incoming Parliament faces a four-month deadline to fill in the most contentious blanks in the constitution adopted in October.  The more time they lose, the remoter the chances that a grand and sustainable bargain on issues like federalism and apportionment of oil proceeds emerges.

4. The Representivity of that Government - If the government is not seen to adequately represent all 3 ethnicities, its prospects for survival will be dim.  While Sunni turnout is predicted to be a record high they have no broad-based coalition vying, so that vagaries of turnout and vote-counting may determine whether the Sunni leadership declares a qualified political victory, or more insurgent war.

5.  Drawdown of US Troops - The Administration has said its likely to withdraw roughly tens of thousands troops from Iraq shortly after the election.   If, as was true during Iraqi constitutional referendum in October, polling day is relatively calm, the spin will be that since things went so well, fewer forces are needed.  But since there's no reason to believe any momentary calm will last, it will be beyond optimistic to conclude anything about Iraq's long-term safety on the basis of election day.   A drawdown, if there is one, will speak to the Administration's drive to lower its political exposure in Iraq, regardless of the consequences.

6.  Fraud Allegations - There were some odd results of the October referendum that necessitated 10 days of auditing and uncertainty before the results were finalized.  Reports of irregularities in voter registration in Kirkuk emerged today.  Even though the absence of international observers was a major problem back in October, it doesn't sound like the situation has been rectified.  Widespread allegations of fraud will undermine public confidence in the election result, and bode badly for the new government.

7.  Whether the Shiite and Sunni religious parties coalesce - One scenario Juan Cole talks about is a coalition between Shiite and Sunni religious parties.  This would marginalize Iraq's Kurds as well as the US but, Cole argues, could represent the best chance of an Iraqi government to tackle the insurgency on its own.   This sounds like it might point to the US's nearest exit sign as well, though whether the Administration could paint a more stable yet Islamist Iraq with close ties to Iran as even a qualified victory is hard to see.

8.  How Quickly Does the New Government Ask the US to Leave - Most contenders say they want to free Iraq from what still feels like an occupation.  But the key question is whether they seek quick, unconditional withdrawal, or instead, as current Prime Minister Jaafari did today, ask the US and others to stay in the short term, given the absence of alternatives to maintain security.

9.  Chalabi - This should be a sideshow, but may not be.  Ahmed Chalabi, a human Phoenix bird, is running on his own on a platform of aggressive de-Baathification, regional autonomy, and secularism.  Chalabi probably holds more responsibility than any single Bush Administration official for the Iraq war and all the associated misrepresentations and misapprehensions.  In this case, the US is unlikely to be better off with the devil we know.

10.  The Spin - The Administration has banked a lot on this ballot.  If the elections go more or less as planned (and there's every sign they will), the Administration will tout the process as a major victory for its strategy, very likely trying to divert attention away from what's likely to be an ambiguous outcome at best.    The spin should tell us a lot about whether the Administration is going to claim "decent interval" and start moving out or whether, as the President claimed but a week ago, the plan is to see this through until Iraq's security forces are truly capable of taking over.


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I think your #6 trumps #1, #2, #3, #4, #7, and #9. Once the elections are seen as fraudulent then those other 6 points depend on who paid the vote-fraud people.

So one way for the iraqi government to gain legitimacy is to schedule an early withdrawal for US forces and to declare a new election as soon as they are gone, a provably fair election. Publish all ythe details of the ballot-collection and ballot-counting and the details that show how people will know that the procedures were actually carried out correctly. International observers at each polling place that somebody is willing to promise to protect them. Stress that in the long run victory tends to follow population size and voting gives people their fair share of power without violence.

It might work. Particularly if they let people vote on whether to secede, and vote repeatedly on that. It works adequately for canada, it might work in iraq.

For #5, troop drawdown, we've had ample warning that we have to get a troop drawdown regardless. The question is only how to spin it. The partial withdrawal is a done deal.

So we're left with #10, how they spin it. Are we going to keep a limited number of troops in iraq in defensive positions? Or are we going to pull them all out? It won't help much to see which way the administration tries to spin that right after the election. They'll be pinned by events.

The trouble is, we haven't trained the iraqi army to do their own supply. We have to supply them. So if we leave there's no iraqi army, we have to keep our supply guys in there. But the other horn is that if our supply guys stay, are we going to depend on the iraqi army to defend them? We can't afford to do that. So we're stuck defending them ourselves. The only ones we can really cut are our offensive troops who attack sunni cities. We have to hope that the iraqi army can take *their* place. At least long enough to get through the 2006 elections.

Unless they get the vote-fraud issue resolved then the only real story here will be about what spin it gets in the US media. And that story's getting old, each next election will be less news and less sign of progress. Been there done that.

#5. Of course election day calm is not by itself justification for partial withdrawl. That hardly means that any withdrawl is US politics only. How would the possibility that US commanders think some withdrawl is reasonable fit in your discussion?

#7 This seems as extremly unlikely, given that the folks who have committed atrocities against Sunnis are from SCIRI, one of the key parties in UIA, and that Sunni Arabs routinely oppose the UIA govt based on its closeness to Iran. Sounds more like wish fulfillment on the part of Cole. But anythings possible I guess.

#9 why should Chalabi be a sideshow? Hes an Iraqi, whos worked for his peoples liberation for years. If Iraqis dont like him, he will lose, and fade away. If they DO like him (and he apparently has done a good job running the economics ministry) then he will have proven that hes a genuine force in Iraq. I see no evidence Iraqis care about the debate in the US about how the war was justified, and I dont see why they should. Chalabi may be the bete noir of some folks here, but thats neither her nor there as far as Iraqi politics.

All in all I see lot of "spin" in this post.

Wow. Lots of criticism, but I deliver my fair share too. In any case, I really like Ms.Nossel's rubric.

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