A Soviet-style election ?

by John Quiggin on November 8, 2004

With Fallujah being pounded to bits, jihadi and insurgent attacks everywhere and a state of emergency, this may seem like a bad time to discuss the Iraqi elections, but there’s no reason to suppose that there’s going to be a better one.

In the Washington Post, Marina Ottaway develops concerns I’ve expressed previously about the possibility that the Iraqi election will degenerate into a Yes-No vote on a unified slate of candidates with a predetermined sharing of the spoils (thanks to Jack Strocchi for the link). Apparently the US Embassy/shadow government is backing this idea. It seems unbelievable that anyone on the US side could see this as a good idea (of course, it makes great sense for Allawi who would be wiped out in a competitive election), but this kind of thing has been the pattern at every previous stage of the occupation.



Enzo Rossi 11.08.04 at 8:06 pm

So, is it even convenient for Allawi to try and cool the situation down from today to the envisaged January elections?

He’s probably trying to block the country in a precarious equilibrium between the total chaos which would prevent any kind of elections from taking place, and the partial chaos which would lead to the soviet-style elections which would favour him and his cronies.

And the Bushies probably even like this, now that they can stop worrying about reelection. Talk about liberation!


kevin donoghue 11.08.04 at 8:22 pm

Why does it seem “unbelievable that anyone on the US side could see this as a good idea”? If the alternative is an Iraqi government with a strong popular mandate, which would probably demand that US forces pack up and leave, a Saigon-style government may look very attractive.


Giles 11.08.04 at 8:23 pm

“this kind of thing has been the pattern at every previous stage of the occupation.”

Really? Not at the local elections that have been held to date in Iraq. So what pattern are you thinking of.

Maybe you’re thinking of the elections on the 3rd which were simply a referendum on the incumbent. As you say that sort of thing can in no way be interpreted as democracy.


abb1 11.08.04 at 8:44 pm

What’s all-knowing all-powerful benevolent Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani doing these days?


dsquared 11.08.04 at 8:46 pm

I’d call it an Israeli-style democracy rather than a Soviet-style one; a more or less fair democracy in most of the country, but one or two enclaves containing about a million people where there is no effective democracy at all and where the locals are only kept under control with helicopter gunships.

This state of affairs is obviously better than Saddam, but one thing we do know from the Israeli case is that enclaves like this make a fantastic training ground for terrorists.


Giles 11.08.04 at 8:58 pm

“like this make a fantastic training ground for terrorists”

I think you’re confusing cause and effect – gunships are there because there are terrorists.

Before there were gunships and terrorists in the west bank i.e. the 70’s and early 80s the Palestneians trained one of the best terrorist forces ever. Now they just strap bombs to their kids.

Claims for land make good terrorists – the existence or non existence of democracy makes very little – espeically as most terrorists don’t include democracy as one of their aims


Sam 11.08.04 at 9:01 pm

I’m ignorant, not trying to make trouble–isn’t this form of election the norm in parlimentary systems? I thought America’s district by district, winner-take-all elections were an oddity, and some form of electoral list system (which allows pre-agreement on coalitions and who-gets-what-post) was the norm.


John Quiggin 11.08.04 at 9:09 pm

Giles, the event I had in mind was the conference which produced the current interim assembly.

But the local elections fit the general pattern in that the occupation forces have routinely cancelled elections where the ‘wrong’ people were elected or seemed likely to win.

Kevin, I agree that it is quite likely that a free election would produce a demand for withdrawal. But that would be a good thing for the US (I believe Bush has actually said he would acquiesce in such a demand).


john bragg 11.08.04 at 9:39 pm

I think it’s time to revive some Pollyannish neocon optimism. To wit:

1. The Kurds are likely to run their own slate, not wanting to chance losing seats because of poorly performing coalition partners. The Kurds expect to need those seats for leverage in post-election maneuvering. If there is an election, there will be post-election maneuvering, and having more seats is better than fewer seats.

2. The Sistani-SCIRI-Dawa axis may very well want to have some distance from the Allawi group, especially if the Sadr-Chalabi challenge comes together.

So that’s at least three significant lists (Kurds, Shia clerics, and secularists) representing the forces that have been working together so far. Plus in all likelihood a Shiite-opposition list and a Sunni-opposition list. Five blocs make it unlikely that any will have a majority, requiring coalition politics.


rd 11.08.04 at 10:08 pm

the ottaway article is badly out of date. Sistani has vetoed the participation of Shiite parties in a cross faith coaltion. Instead, as discussed in yesterday’s NY Times by Edward Wang, he’s demanding an all Shiite alliance that includes Sadr as a partner. But if the Allawite plan for a grand coalition across sectarian lines had gone through, I’m at a loss to see why its ipso facto illegitimate or “Soviet-style.” The coalition would have excluded Sadr, so you’d have a cross-faith coalition in favor of pluralistic politics lined up against Sadr and other rejectionists among both Shiites and Sunnis. Why is this a less meaningful choice than one on purely sectarian grounds?


Giles 11.08.04 at 10:13 pm

Rd – In reality it looks more like Northern Ireland than Soviet democracy – you can vote for who you like, but both religions have got to be represented or you’ll revert to westminster rule.


rd 11.08.04 at 10:25 pm

I agree that a Northern Ireland-esque sectarian politics is most likely. What I don’t understand is the automatic condemnation by Ottaway and others of an apparently failed effort to give Iraqi politics a non-sectarian choice.


dsquared 11.09.04 at 12:09 am

Giles, the slagging each other off about Israel thread has been closed. I’m making the factual point that a very significant proportion of active international terrorists have served an apprenticeship in the Occupied Territories, and most of the machinery of terrorism has been either invented or substantially developed there; the Tamils invented the concept of a suicide bomber, but the Palestinians invented the belts and most of the processes for carrying out a suicide attack. We’re in danger of turning Fallujah into an alternative proving ground.


q 11.09.04 at 12:11 am


liberation I think you mean!

The US forces are the welcome guests of the 20 million people in Iraq. The war finished last year.


John Quiggin 11.09.04 at 12:35 am

I agree with commenters who observe that Sistani is not going along with this plan, and that it is therefore probably doomed, which is good.

As for the suggestion that the plan would have allowed a free choice between the government and opponents like Sadr, the rules give the government immense power to harass its opponents, for example by banning parties on all sorts of pretexts. And of course the US is spending millions to promote the parties it supports. Plebiscites on governments imposed by force have never been free and fair and would not be in this case.


Lewis Hyde 11.09.04 at 12:45 am

When John Agresto, the U.S.’s former senior advisor overseeing the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education, spoke at Kenyon College on October 25th he was asked about the timeline for establishing democracy in Iraq. In his reply he said that we can’t expect a “Jeffersonian democracy” there, nor even a “Lockian democracy.” The best we can have is a “Hobbsian democracy.”

I have no idea what that is, but maybe it helps explain the “Yes-No slate” you describe.

— Lewis Hyde


Giles 11.09.04 at 12:53 am

I’m making the factual point that a very significant proportion of active international terrorists have served an apprenticeship in the Occupied Territories”

Actually I think you’re thinking of Lebanon – virtually all the international PLO terrorists were exiles and the suicide bomber arrived and was developed in Lebanon, as was the roadside bomb, as was the homemade rocket, as indeed was Hamas. Once the research was done in Lebanon, all these ideas then moved it into Gaza.

So I think it’d be truer to say that Gaza is an objective, or possibly a finishing school for terrorists – but its certainly not a training ground.


George 11.09.04 at 12:56 am


I’ve seen you make that argument (about Israeli-style democracy) before, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I am curious about exactly what you mean. By “one or two enclaves containing about a million people where there is no effective democracy at all and where the locals are only kept under control with helicopter gunships”, do you mean the Occupied Territories or Israeli Arabs? If the former, I’d say there’s a crucial distinction to made, in that those territories are not part of Israel, and the Israelis have (I think) no legal or moral obligation to let them participate in Israel’s democracy. (They have other obligations toward them, of course.) If you mean the latter, I don’t think the Israelis are using heavy weaponry against Arabs in Israel.

Again, I’m not trying to be provocative, and I think I understand your underlying point. But I’m trying to understand exactly what you mean.


pj 11.09.04 at 1:09 am

Didn’t Saddam also stand for yes/no elections in which the outcome was preordained? So has Iraq improved at all, much less changed enough to balance out the “transition costs” of up to 100,000 deaths.


Peter 11.09.04 at 2:03 am

I’m trying to understand exactly what you mean

Don’t, George. “Israeli-style democracy”… “helicopter gunships”… Dsquared just likes the snarky sound of them. To try to understand how the words might actually apply to the facts is to defeat their purpose.


John 11.09.04 at 6:10 am

liberation I think you mean!

The US forces are the welcome guests of the 20 million people in Iraq. The war finished last year.

Why of course! The hundreds of American servicemembers dead and thousands wounded and scarred and tens of thousands traumatized for life must have just had an accident. Yeah, that makes sense. Maybe it was a “police action”. You know, Vietnam wasn’t a declared war either. We won that one too!

Dunno about you, but I always try to blow up my welcome guests.


abb1 11.09.04 at 8:43 am

Come on, folks. Totalitarian-style one-set-of-candidates-vote-them-up-or-down-and-no-alternative election is nothing like ‘Israeli-style democracy’ nor it’s ‘the norm in parliamentary systems’ nor it’s anything ‘like Northern Ireland’.

It’s a typical Soviet-style (and Saddam-style) election, just like John said.


dsquared 11.09.04 at 10:45 am

George: I’m referring to the occupied territories (and, as giles points out, the Palestinians in Lebanon). I agree with you that there are significant points of disanalogy. But I’m not really trying to make a moral or political point one way or the other here.

I’m just suggesting that, as a practical matter, since one of the things we hope to achieve in Iraq is a reduction of the threat from terrorism, then it’s probably bad news that we appear to be creating a place which looks very like another place which we know has contributed significantly to the global supply of terrorists.


Idiot/Savant 11.09.04 at 11:01 am


While many other countries use list-based proportional representation systems, one of the fundamentals is that you get to choose between lists. In Iraq, where there are substantial barriers to being on the ballot, and where the regime can exclude anyone they like by calling them terrorists, this may not be the case.

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