Mixed results from constitutional elections


Comment by Lars Akerhaug

To summarize the result of the constitutional elections in Iraq already might seem premature - in that the main effect of these elections will not be seen immediately, but rather in its long-term effect on the political movement. These elections were a part of what we might name "the political process" taking place in Iraq, aiming mainly to normalize, or stabilize the situation in the country. As such, the proposed constitution is an organic part of the US occupation on which the political forces participating in the political process depend. Thus, the result of the constitutional elections will mainly be seen in the effect it had on these forces and those opposing them.

However it is worth summarizing at this point what can be observed. At the time of writing, election results are not clear, and many areas are not accounted for. This also means that the early victory claimed by among others Condolezza Rice might be not so sure. Under the rules for the 15 October referendum, the constitution fails if it is rejected by a two-third majority in any three of the 18 provinces and elections to a new parliament must be held.

"In Salah al-Din province, location of Saddam Hussein's hometown, 81.5% of voters rejected the text. The commission said the remaining five provinces - mainly Sunni al-Anbar and Nineveh, mainly Kurdish Arbil and mainly Shia Basra and Babel - are expected to release their results in the next few days. "The results from these governorates and audit reports will be presented as part of the final preliminary results scheduled for release early this week," the commission said. "This audit is scheduled to be completed in the coming days at which point the IECI will release a complete set of provisional results."" (Al Jazeera online 23rd of October).

We believe however that it is possible to make some observations already. Even as the electoral results are unclear (at the point of writing Baghdad was not counted) some clear tendencies are obvious. Already many claims have been made and will be made in the future about cheating and irregularities. According to IPS Washington,

"The early vote totals from Nineveh province, which suggested an overwhelming majority in favour of Iraq's draft constitution that assured its passage by national referendum, now appear to have been highly misleading. The final official figures for the province, obtained by IPS from a U.S. official in Mosul, actually have the constitution being rejected by a fairly wide margin, but less than the two-thirds majority required to defeat it outright. Both the initial figures and the new vote totals raise serious questions about the credibility of the reported results in Nineveh. A leading Sunni political figure has already charged that the Nineveh vote totals have been altered."

At the time of writing there is no sense of certainty towards the outcome. From the incoming polls it seems as a majority has voted yes. However, as is clear from above, the possibility still exists that at least three provinces might have voted against with more than 2/3rd of the votes. It is also not clear what level of participation took place, which will be equally important for the attempts to legitimate the constitution. But in spite of this uncertainty some tendencies are still distinguishable and will be examined below.

Shia antagonisms

The Shia communal groups, possibly with the exception of northern Shia Turcomans, have, as well as the Kurds by and large supported the constitution. However, the Shia position on the constitution is still contradictory. From the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr there was voiced very clear criticism of the constitution, especially on the proposed federalism under US sovereignty. However, Muqtada al-Sadr in the end did not oppose the constitution, permitting his followers freely to choose what to vote. In the area of Najaf, tribal leaders published a call to vote "NO" to the constitution.

An antagonism exists inside Shia Iraqi society, one that will continue to develop. These forces, that are both religious and tribal in outlook, will continue in a struggle that is both directed against the occupation but also against the authority of the traditional Najafi ulama (clergy), who support this occupation. However, these forces are also severely hindered by their lack of religious authority. In the end, their political outlook is so limited by this that a final confrontation with the old najafi and Karbali elites is impossible. This is further seen in the areas with a homogenous Shia population, where the numbers voting "no" are sometimes as small as 2%. No doubt, these numbers are probably not reflecting the distrust or dissatisfaction with the constitution existing in the Shia societies. But they do reflect an enormous social pressure from the elite in these societies, a pressure the tribal leaders or the Sadrist current were totally unable to mount resistance towards.

Resistance without a political vision

In the Sunni Arab areas it is equally obvious that the political room for those forces participating in the political process is close to zero. The near unanimous result of "NO" from the province of Ramadi will remain a serious block to the continuation of the political legitimization of the occupation. However, the political resistance to the constitution existing in Ramadi did not transcend sufficiently into other provinces. In areas as Mosul, which is mixed arab-kurdish-turkoman and Samarra, which is mixed shia-sunni-kurd, the numbers voting no are much smaller, estimated around 30% and at least probably less than 50. What this reflects is the failure of a political formulated resistance to the constitution and the political process. The resistance to the occupation is in military terms very strong. This military resistance is also a permanent block against stabilizing or normalizing the situation. However, the failure demonstrated in the less tribal and more urban areas where the Resistance operates tells of the political incapacity of the movement to transcend its message in political terms and build a vision for an Iraqi political future without US occupation.

Here it is worth to criticize the ba'athist position that the "resistance does not need a political front" that has also been adopted by some other personalities and groups. In fact this position, which was demonstrated in polemics against a forum in Beirut this summer aiming to paint a political vision of Iraq without occupation, is directly contra productive. This position condemns the resistance to clandestinely, while the opposite, the development of a political movement is necessary. The ba'athists (and in parts of Iraq, salafi Islamist movements claiming loyalty to al-qaida) are the strongest on the ground military speaking.

But this does not mean that the ba'ath party is especially strong. Remember the shallow character of ba'athism the last two decades, where the ideology of ba'ath was transformed from a political movement into a clan-based structure of benefits and loyalties. The intellectual class supporting the ba'ath party's secularist policies was wiped out. The party had to reform its approach to politics to stay in power but in this process lost its identity as a party. In the era of Saddam Hussein, they could exist through a combination of mere physical and psychological power and an intricate distribution web of money and favours. Those days are gone, and although Ba'ath might still have strong financial centres outside or inside Iraq, they are not going to re-appear as the main distributor of benefits. Of course efforts to "revive" the party and maybe also finding back to it's original identity, it is very difficult to see any future where the party returns to power. In it's last decades the power of the party was based on a combination of warfare, dictatorship and distribution of benefits, not politics. This era is not something Iraqis however much they oppose the occupation, wish to return to.

This means that in terms of political advance ness, the Shia groups and other urban and intellectual strata's that oppose the occupation have a much better possibility of accomplishing a de facto political front.

Syria, Iran and the constitution

The neighbouring countries have of course a massive interest in the situation in Iraq. As such they have also in different ways involved themselves in the workings of the political process there. The Iraqi Patriotic Alliance has called the constitution an "American-Iranian constitution". They suggest that the constitution was in fact in accordance with Iranian interests. It is certainly true that many of the members of the current Iraqi government have strong bonds to the Iranian state. Especially this is true of members of SCIRI (Superior council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), which was originally an Iranian creation. However, this analysis is also superficial in several respects. First of all it is wrong to equate SCIRI and the Iranian state. It is true that in the beginning and during the war with Iraq the Iranian government, which intruded into its workers, handpicked leaders and disfavoured others, closely controlled this organisation. However, in the recent years following the 1991 war the SCIRI ended its total submission to Teheran, searching also support from western states that they saw could "liberate" Iraq.

Their political participation in the "London opposition" who before the war formed the backbone of the participants of the political process under occupation should also bee seen as a departure from sole dependence on Iran. This does not mean that they broke with the regime, only that they were able to extend the level of sponsorship also to Western states. Secondly, it is important to remember that Iranian politics are highly factional. Parts of the regime, as former president Khatami and the defeated candidate Rafsanjani, seek a compromise with the west. Others don't, and it is well known that for instance Muqtada Al-Sadr also has supporters among the Iranian clergy. Thirdly, to disregard the strong clouds of political conflict between the US and Iran seems mistaken. While this conflict is not settled, and the outcome is not sure, it is neither appropriate to represent these states as searching common goals in the Middle East. That Iranian political leaders favour certain participants in the political process does not indicate a common interest or a Grand Plan with the occupation forces.

Syria has, latest in the interview made by Basher al-Assad to the CNN, claimed stability as their goal in Iraq. However, ambiguity towards the political process is certainly the most fitting way to describe the Syrian stance. Syria could, in a certain respect, be interested in the situation "cooling down" in Iraq, thus relieving some of the American pressure against them. But they are neither interested in a neighbouring country that supports the US and Israel. They have, for instance, reasons to fear that the numerous Mossad agents operating in Northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan will attempt to spread a Kurdish rebellion into the Qamishle region of Northern Syria (where the political situation is already very tense). As such the political outlook of Syria has also been very ambiguous, neither condemning nor supporting those participating in the political process or those resisting it. For instance, in his CNN interview, Assad distinguished between resistance against occupation and killing civilians, stopping short of supporting military actions against US soldiers. However, Assad also allows the publishing of newspapers and magazines with a popular outlook strongly criticising the constitution.

No normalisation with occupation

It will not be easy or at all possible for the US to legitimise the political process. That the constitution will be passed with what is probably a majority of "Yes" votes does not mean that the occupation is equally legitimised. Rather, a popular phrase has developed that "the resistance is in the constitution". While such sayings hardly reflect reality (the constitution is by all means designed to continue the occupation), the popular mood reflects dissatisfaction by the occupation also among "yes" voters.

Rather, the continuation of the political process will further stamp the involved parts as dependent of the US occupation. October 12th a forum held by former Prime Minister Allawi was held, gathering Kurdish groups, leftists, Sunnis and others involved in the political process, in an attempt to bolster force against the Shia groups that now hold power. However, it was necessary also for Allawi to cloak his attempts in words about "national unity" and the necessity of "Iraq without US troops". Those politicians like the former PM, who is totally a creation of the US, has to resort to such measures are further a signal that the isolation of the political elite is growing. They fear, with reason, to be drawn into the defeat of the US.

The constitution itself is not very important. Neither are the results. It is not positive that it was passed with such ease, and it will for some time provide a cover preventing the US withdrawal. However it changes precious little on the ground as long as the political process of the US only extends to a hand-picked elite with loyalties to them or other countries. In this situation the military and political resistance to occupation will continue to find fertile ground, non-respective of all its lacks.