Monday, January 10, 2005

Will they vote?

Christopher Hitchens, in drawing a contrast between the recent Palestinian elections and the upcoming elections in Iraq, makes a compelling argument for holding the Iraqi elections on time:

Reports seem to suggest that almost 70 percent of the Palestinians turned out to vote. Given the gruesome local exigencies, and the grudging way in which the Israelis allowed freedom of movement, this cannot possibly translate into a 30 percent endorsement of the call for a boycott by Hamas and by Islamic Jihad. One might award them 20 percent at best: roughly the proportion of Sunni Muslims in Iraq who don't want to have their future (or anyone else's) determined by ballot. Should one have postponed a Palestinian vote until these violent rejectionist forces were all "on board"?

The scheduled elections would seem to pose a lose-lose proposition for both the United States and Iraq. If elections go forward but a significant number of people, particularly among the Sunnis, are unable or unwilling to participate, the results will be seen as illegitimate, and the country may slip into civil war. (Not to mention an increase of violence against U.S. troops) On the other hand, should the U.S. and the provisional Iraqi government postpone the election, we will be handing the insurgents a major propaganda victory and squander whatever goodwill we might have left as liberators. Given that civil war may be inevitable, I'm tempted to go with the former scenario.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hitchens' comparison is flawed by the fact that neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad were likely to blow up fellow Palestinians at or on their way to the polls. Or shoot voters in their homes or cars afterwards in retaliation.

Iraq's elections are far more fraught with potential violence. Only ideology and the inconvenience of Israeli occupation could keep a Palestinian from the polls -- and in this regard Hitchens is correct, the turnout was apparently quite high, considering the call from Hamas for a boycott. Iraqis must contend with fear as well. We've been talking about the slide toward civil war since the occupation began; I think it's been underway for some time, and its escalation from bombing and assassination to gunfights in the streets is inevitable. But a government elected by the majority Shia might be able to make a more convincing effort at security than has the provisional government, even engaging the militias that surround the various Shia parties and leaders -- militias that are not likely to run from combat or to be swayed by the forces they're supposed to fight. So maybe, if elections go forward and a new government is elected with some mantle of legitimacy -- at least in the eyes of the majority of Shia -- then the fighting won't last as long. Or will maintain its current, terrible course of bombings and assassinations.

Then there's the Kurdish question. One thing Sunni and Shia frequently agree on is that the Kurds cannot maintain the level of autonomy they enjoy now, and that the interim agreement gives Iraq's various regions -- read: Kurdistan -- too much power. So the new constitution, to be prepared by this duly elected government, probably will attempt a centralization of power. This could cause a major fracas down the road.
-- geoff

1:17 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

That's a very good call regarding the problem with Hitchens' analogy. There may be whole towns in Iraq where people may not be able to vote because the people charged with running the polls have resigned due to fear.

9:08 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with Geoff on a major point. Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, et al, have certainly been killing Abbas supporters for more than a decade. In fact, the fighting within the Occupied Territories between Fatah and other insurgents is noteworthy press in the Arab world.

We won't even discuss Gaza, where brutal killing within the ranks of Fatah itself prepatory to the hand off to Palestinians has kept IDF troops there longer than they wanted to be.

While it might be natural for one to assume that Hezbollah ("The Party of G-d") would be the cat to the Sunni's Fatah dog (with some Christians and Druze thrown in for good measure), Islamic Jihad and Hamas battle simply for political control of the camps.

Here's a nice International Herald-Tribune story about the Gaza fighting between Hamas and Fatah two years ago (Fatah won, mostly, and now Fatah cells are killing each other).

Here's from 2003:

Here's 2004:

I could go back to 1988, but the Internet doesn't.

Please note, however, that Hezbollah has been usually supportive of Hamas ("Courage"). The irony is that Israel actually supported Hamas during the first intifadah as a counterweight to Fatah, only to be repaid with waves of suicide bombers and Arab death squads.

So, basically, Geoff is very wrong.

I agree, however, with JP, who suggests that it's a no-win situation for the U.S. and its Iraqi allies on elections. We can expect a very high turnout for the Shia and the Kurds, and almost nothing from the Sunni, and that leaves many (including me) to wonder if that poisons the democratic process.

I guess I would be more concerned, however, if the Sunnis made up more than 25 percent of the population, which they don't. So screw them and the Baathist whores they rode in on.

10:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not intend to argue that there has been no internecine fighting among Palestinians. That would be foolish. I meant, rather, what I said, that there was little chance of Hamas and Islamic Jihad turning their call to boycott into violence at the polls. My opinion is not just my own -- I borrowed it from the analyses of Arab journalists reporting from Israel/Palestine and throughout the region, many of whom agreed that it would be self-destructive for any Palestinian faction to interrupt these elections. I think they were right about that; there was practically no disturbance. The only visible intimidation reported by election observers came in the form of Israeli helicopters and closed border crossings.

In that respect I think that the Palestinian elections were far different in character than the upcoming Iraqi elections will be. Hamas, despite its extreme positions, has a political future in Palestine, whether its supporters go the polls or not, and they know it. Those Sunnis calling for a boycott in Iraq, having foregone compromise, probably have no political future there that is not won by force of arms.

I agree with Hitchens that the elections have to go forward; the Shia majority will not be patient very much longer. But I think his comparison to Palestinian elections is forced, a matter of convenience, an attention-getter. The situations and the stakes for the stakeholders are vastly different.

On the topic: Here at Qatar Foundation we hold a series of monthly debates hosted by Tim Sebastian of BBC's HARDtalk. This month's proposition: "This House believes that Iraq's neighbors do not wish to see a democratic Iraq." The speakers: Saddam's former ambassador to the UN, Mohammad al-Douri; British MP Clare Short, who resigened her cabinet post over the war; Pat Theros, former US ambassador to Qatar and the coordinator of the campaign to name Allawi interim president; and Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds.

Should be a good one. There'll be some kind of report on NBC Nightly News around the end of the month.

2:14 AM


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