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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

Bush, Iraq, and Demonstration Elections

Last October, when Vladimir Putin engineered the election of his hand-picked subordinate Ahmad Kadyrov as president of Chechnya through tactics such as pressuring candidates to withdraw, forcing the leading candidate, Malik Saidullayev, out with a court injunction, and appointing another candidate to his staff to remove him from the election, Western punditry was not slow to condemn the election as a farce and a sham. It did so again when he interfered as blatantly in the recent August elections in Chechnya.

Ever since 9/11, however, the Bush administration has been treating us to a series of equally farcical “elections” with minimal or no comment from the same sources. The matter has now come to what should be a crisis point over plans to engineer the upcoming U.N. Security Council-mandated elections in Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was once again in the news regarding his concerns that the main U.S.-affiliated political parties (the ones that formed the Governing Council and that now dominate the transitional assembly) are negotiating on a “consensus slate” of candidates for the elections. While his main reported concern is that the Shi’a majority of Iraq will be underrepresented, based on an estimate from the early 90’s that 55% of the Iraqi population is Shi’a Arab compared to his estimate of 65% today, there is a much more serious question at stake – the legitimacy of the elections.

In some countries, with a well-established parliamentary system and a history of active political parties and an inclusive public discourse, slates like this are not necessarily a problem. In systems like India’s, with numerous parties and a first-past-the-post voting system (no matter how many candidates there are, the candidate with the most votes wins, with no runoffs), such electoral alliances may be necessary to get smaller parties some degree of parliamentary representation.

In Iraq, however, the situation is different. According to a recent New York Times editorial (9/26/04), such a slate could create “essentially a one-party election unless Iraq's fragmented independents manage to organize themselves into an effective new political force.” And, said the Times, in an uncharacteristically direct criticism, “Otherwise, Iraq's first free election may look uncomfortably like the plebiscites choreographed to produce 98 percent majorities for Saddam Hussein.”

What the Times neglected to mention is the Bush administration’s well-documented history of “managed” elections set up directly under its auspices in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the June 2002 Afghan loya jirga, roughly 1500 delegates assembled to pick the interim president of the country. Although all delegates were under a great degree of pressure by U.S.-backed warlords (who did everything from killing delegates before the assembly to controlling the floor at the assembly), over 800 signed a statement in support of Zahir Shah, the exiled monarch. According to Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, delegates to the loya jirga, the United States then stepped in and “the entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government.” (NYT, 6/21/02) When the assembly resumed, delegates were given a choice between Hamid Karzai and two unknown candidates running for symbolic value (one of them was a woman) – essentially, as in the Chechnya elections, they were presented with a fait accompli.

More recently, the Bush administration pushed to have Afghan elections before the U.S. elections, then switched around and pressured the Afghan Electoral Commission to delay the parliamentary elections until next April (CSM, 7/13/04) while going ahead with presidential elections in October. The notion was pretty clear that there would be no time for anyone to emerge as a national-level alternative to Karzai, thus making the presidential elections effectively one-candidate. There are 18 candidates, one of whom, Yunus Qanooni, is known to many – although no one considers him a rival to Karzai, who should have no trouble prevailing against such a divided field. Even so, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (closely linked with neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz) has been pressuring candidates from Qanooni all the way to Mohammed Mohaqiq, who represents the minority Hazaras, to resign with some combination of coercion and bribery. In fact, Qanooni and 13 other candidates actually met to discuss how to deal with Khalilzad’s election tampering (LAT, 9/23/04)

In Iraq, the U.S. record is similar. Much propaganda has been made of the local “elections” instituted by U.S. forces, but to believe it calls for a willing disjunction from reality. In some places, the “election” was an appointment of mayor and/or city council members by the local U.S. commander, sometimes disastrously, as when U.S. forces appointed a Sunni from Baghdad to be mayor of the mostly Shi’a Najaf, cancelled an election he would surely have lost, and later had to remove him anyway because of charges of corruption and Ba’athist links (WP, 6/28/03, and others). In Basra, British and U.S. forces appointed local officials and then removed them and decided explicitly that Iraqis would only serve in a technocratic capacity, not a political one (WP, 5/29/03). In other places, like Kirkuk, the “election” was one conducted by 300 delegates all hand-picked and vetted by U.S. forces, not by the people of Kirkuk.

In late June 2003, U.S. commanders had ordered a halt to all local elections, because they had determined that in many places people and groups they didn’t like were too popular and might win (WP, 6/28/03). That is unfortunately one of the problems with democracy. A few days later, Paul Bremer approved resumption of elections (WP, 7/1/03), but allowed local commanders to choose between appointment, election by specially vetted caucuses, and actual elections; unstated was the conclusion that U.S. commanders should choose the form of “election” based on the likelihood of getting the result they wanted.

All of these experiments in “democracy” were, of course, in a context where U.S. commanders could countermand any city council decision and dissolve any council as they so chose.

At the national level, things have been similarly manipulated. Of course, elections have been postponed repeatedly, even though the difficulties that exist in Afghanistan did not exist in Iraq (for example, the ubiquitous ration cards could have been used as a basis for voter identification and registration); even the January 2005 elections are mandated only because other countries on the Security Council insisted on the setting of a date as a condition for approving Resolution 1546, on the so-called “transfer of sovereignty.”

Furthermore, numerous other ostensibly national political processes have been cancelled or manipulated as well. An assembly planned for June 2003, that would have involved mostly the U.S.-designated exile-dominated “Iraqi opposition” was cancelled by Paul Bremer. He said it was because the “opposition” was not representative of the country; then, a month later he chose, entirely on his own authority, 25 people, 16 of them exiles, to form the Governing Council.

This August, as the center of Najaf was ceaselessly bombarded, a national conference of  roughly 1300 delegates met to select the interim national assembly, a body of 100 people whose formation was mandated by the “transfer of sovereignty” process (actually, 81 delegates were to be selected, the other 19 coming from the old Governing Council). Ostensibly picked by democratic processes in their locality, the delegates certainly did represent a wide variety of parties and views, although major groups opposed to the occupation were under-represented (Moqtada al-Sadr, whose organization was under military assault at the time, boycotted the conference).

However, the delegates at the conference learned that there would be no nomination of candidates, campaigning, or elections but instead, a pre-selected slate of 81 candidates, picked by back-room negotiations between the major U.S.-affiliated parties. Attempts by small parties to form an alternative slate fell through; at the end, the U.S.-backed slate was not even presented to the delegates for formal approval.

This last was a sham that would likely embarrass even Vladimir Putin. Apparently, the Bush administration is happy with elections in places it controls, like Afghanistan or Iraq, as long as there are no choices (when there are, as in Florida, strange things can happen). There is not a shred of a reason to doubt that this is precisely what is planned for the January elections in Iraq – collusion by the U.S.-backed political parties to pick Iraqi figures who will continue to collaborate with the occupation and to shut out all other Iraqi voices. Now that the New York Times has weighed in on this particular election engineering scheme, it may well be traded in for another, but the recent history of U.S. foreign policy suggests that, no matter what, a free election will not be allowed.

There is a deplorable tendency in this country to use words like “freedom” and “democracy” in a purely talismanic manner, without attaching any actual meaning to them – only thus could the coups in Guatemala in 1954 or in Haiti in 2004 be hailed as advances for democracy. But the current administration takes this to heretofore undreamed of extremes, as could be seen clearly at the Republican National Convention this year. For Bush, apparently, democracy means any kind of election at all – a definition that would make dictators from Ngo Dinh Diem to Saddam Hussein, all of whom engineered electoral “victories,” perfectly happy.

In fact, to Bush, democracy and freedom mean simply “anything the United States does” or, indeed, “anything I do.” The implications for the United States and its internal affairs ought to be as clear as the implications for Iraq. Mobilize to ensure that the elections in Iraq in January are real elections; the freedom you save may be your own.

Rahul Mahajan is publisher of  the blog Empire Notes and teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah while it was under siege in April. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies, as well as continuities between Democratic and Republican policies on Iraq. He can be reached at
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