Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Iraqis vote for politics

Which is excellent news, everyone will agree? Well, of course they don't. On one site (in the comments boxes, I should say) which shall remain nameless, the result was absurdly and grotesquely compared to the results Saddam Hussein used to get in his 'elections'. Don't let it bother you; by now it should be clear that some people are absolutely impervious to history. But it seems that some 78% of voters backed the charter and 21% opposed it, in a vote the UN observers described as being as free and fair as one could reasonably expect under the circumstances. (This was a slightly higher proportion than said yes in the referendum for the Scottish Parliament, if anyone's interested, albeit on a slightly lower turnout.)

I was never in any doubt that Iraqis prefer political solutions to their problems rather than the alternative and this represents significant progress. However, the old number-crunching side of my pol sci training just won't leave me and there is, despite the encouraging result, reasons to be cautious for the following reasons:
1) There is no question that a majority of Iraqis welcomed the ouster of Saddam Hussein but it does not follow from this that a majority of Iraqis support the occupation and a large number of voters, whilst welcoming the opportunity to vote, did so because they understood this as a mechanism for ending the occupation.

2) The regional disparities are a cause for concern: just by taking the first two provinces in alphabetical order, in Anbar an overwhelming 96.9% of the population rejected the constitution, whereas in Babil, the picture is almost a complete mirror-image, with 94.56% voting in favour. One doesn't have to be an elections and voters anorak to discern that this indicates profound divisions in Iraqi society. Nevertheless an encouraging, and to me surprising, indicator of support for the political process is found in the Baghdad result, which had 77.7% in favour of the new constitution. This is almost exactly the proportion that voted for the Scottish Parliament so I'm looking forward to those politicians in Scotland who were opposed to the invasion of Iraq now declaring that this is incontrovertible evidence of the 'settled will of the Iraqi people' as they did in the Scottish case.
Oil, federalism and consociational democracy

The other aspect of my training that just won't leave me is in economic history and I had to laugh when anti-war critics declared in the run-up to the invasion that it was "all about oil", as if there was much that has happened in the Middle East over the last sixty years or so that didn't have to do with oil. Why did they think that Saddam Hussein was sustained in power in the first place? Wasn't that 'blood for oil'?

And in the present situation, are we being asked to believe that the present rage and fury of the former Sunni elite has nothing to do with the fact that the oil-rich regions in Iraq are located in the Kurdish and Shia regions? Of course it does - and this brings us to the question of federalism.

This, along with other mechanisms like strong local government and proportional representation, are commonly used in what political scientists refer to as 'consociational democracies' generally considered to be appropriate to divided societies such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Belgium and Holland. Federalism in the Iraqi context makes perfect sense, given its ethnic and confessional diversity. It is probably essential in order to keep the Shias and certainly the Kurds on board but it is a difficult balancing act because for regions such as Babil and Salahuddin, it is essential that federalism should not be perceived as a stepping stone to the break-up of the Iraqi central state.

It's one of the many problems that the possession of oil-reserves can cause. If you doubt this economistic interpretation, think where Scottish nationalism was before the discovery of North Sea oil.

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