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Iraq's Elections: Pointing the Way to the Future or a Return to Oppression?

By Walid PharesTerrorism Expert/FOX News Contributor

Why are the Iraqi elections important to Americans and the rest of the international community? Simply because it will show, or won't, that "spreading democracy" is possible in that part of the world, a principle against which Jihadist forces, authoritarian regimes and many critics within the West have challenged.

The seeds of elections are now planted in Mesopotamia. With more than 140 political party and associations, hundreds of newspapers, publications, dozens of radio and TV stations -- a mosaic is in existence. It will be hard on the Iranian Mullahs and on Al Qaeda to crush all this diversity across the Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian lines.
Iraqi voters will tell if US efforts in the Middle East since 9/11 were worth the sacrifices and if those who voted in Congress to remove the Taliban and Saddam were -- or not- - on the right side of the history of democracy. Here are the voting battlefield's challenges:

1) Regardless of the final results, Iraqi citizens on January 31, 2009 will be selecting representatives in 14 of the Republic's 18 provinces. Since February 1963, the Baathist regime in Baghdad eliminated free elections for forty years until it was removed in 2003 by US and Coalition forces. Then in four years as of 2005, the population was allowed to cast their ballots four times! In January 2005, provincial councils and a national assembly were elected. In October of that year, a referendum confirmed the constitution. In December, parliamentary elections followed. This weekend 15 million voters will select the provinces assemblies and towards the end of the year another vote will bring a new parliament and decide on the US-Iraqi defense treaty. This is more electoral exercise than in Switzerland, even though the anti-democratic forces are still a direct threat to the system.

2) The Jihadist forces of Iraq, including Al Qaeda, dislike the rise of a democratic culture and the pro-Iranian militants plan on using the system to their advantage. Violence may erupt, more likely in diverse areas such as the Diyala province or in cities such as Mosul. But here again the preparedness of Iraqi forces, assisted by the Coalition, will tell about the readiness of the country to manage its own elections in the future.

3) The level of participation will tell us if popular trust in elections is taking root and any numbers higher than 60 % will confirm this.

4) Iraq's electoral landscape is diverse: Kurdistan will vote en masse and their two coalitions will seize the assemblies. Participation by Christian and other minorities such as Turkomen will tell us more about future diversity in Kurdistan. In the center, the rise in participation among Sunnis will tell us more about the success of the anti-Al Qaeda element, but the final results will show the shape of future Sunni politics in Iraq. In the largest provinces of the center and the south, the distribution of seats between pro-Iranians, moderates, and reformists will indicate the real winners in these elections. Whoever would win among Shia will determine the type of relationship Iraq will have with the United States in the next few years. But Kurdish and Sunni Arab provinces can deprive any Shia party from returning the country as a whole to dictatorship.

5) These elections will produce a new majority in Iraq, which will be always determined by coalition building. However, one result cannot be reversed anymore; no more return to single party dictatorship. Iraq may break in pieces, but it will never return to a Saddam-like monstrosity; and that is what authoritarians in contiguous countries fear the most.

The seeds of elections are now planted in Mesopotamia. With more than 140 political party and associations, hundreds of newspapers, publications, dozens of radio and TV stations -- a mosaic is in existence. It will be hard on the Iranian Mullahs and on Al Qaeda to crush all this diversity across the Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian lines. Once young Iraqis who will be voting for the first time, women who have broken the walls of gender exclusiveness, and minorities emerging from the underground, have tasted and tested this democratic exercise -- a resistance to fascism and totalitarianism is born. Fundamentalism is said to have lost some support as an increasing number of Iraqis (41% in the latest poll) said they prefer secular parties over religious ones. But let's be realistic, these are the early baby steps of Iraqi democracy, and as long as the Iranian and Syrian regimes are working on undermining the growing democratic culture inside their neighbor, and as long as Wahabis and Salafis are receiving Petro Dollars from the Arabia Peninsula to impose an Emirate in the Sunni Triangle -- the menace against the "Democratic Republic" is as real as the difficult times experienced by Western democracies as they emerged in Europe and the Americas.

6) Which bring us to the Obama administration's "Iraq Plan:" If they have already committed to the 16 months withdrawal program, so be it; but the new White House should keep in mind that hurdling out of that country without establishing real Iraqi defenses against the menacing wolves on the eastern and western borders and the Jihadi corridor from the south, will kill the forthcoming chances of a real change in the region. The debate about why and when should we have helped Iraq against its bullies is now in the hands of historians, but as President Obama announced in his inaugural address, the destinies of that country should be secured in the hands of the "Iraqi people," not the Mullahs in Tehran or Assad of Syria. These elections are probably the last before American military begins to redeploy inside and from Iraq. The challenge for the U.S. administration is to empower Iraqis to enjoy such exercises in democracy many times more, instead of falling into obscure times again.

Dr. Walid Phares is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of "The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracies."

Dr. Walid Phares joined Fox News in January 2007 and serves as Middle East and terrorism expert.