Monday, April 05, 2010

The Iraqi Voter Rewrites the Rulebook

By ROD NORDLAND New York Times BAGHDAD — Quite a few of the candidates in Iraq’s national election did so poorly they didn’t even get the votes of their wives (assuming the sole vote these candidates got was their own). Maybe the wives were on to something. They had a lot of company among Iraqi voters, who showed a ruthlessly discriminating eye when they voted on March 7 for their political leaders. Once the names and vote totals of all the individual candidates were finally announced last week, there were a lot of surprises. And perhaps the biggest was the unexpected sophistication of the Iraqi voter, even though the election results left this often-violent land without a clear governing consensus and some groups crying for a recount. It may, in fact, be months before a governing coalition can be formed in a 325-seat Parliament where no group won more than 91 seats. Still, the election accomplished something quintessentially democratic: The voters had their say, and what they said was not just “a pox on all their houses,” but also something far more trenchant — that many assumptions about what appeals to voters, however true elsewhere, need to be revised for voters here. First, incumbency didn’t matter. Only 62 of the 275 members of the last Parliament kept their seats. Also dashed were the political hopes of many government officials — commissioners, deputy ministers and more. Second, sectarianism is still a force in Iraq, but no longer the only significant force, as it was five years ago in the first election after Saddam Hussein fell. While some religious parties did well, it wasn’t well enough to dictate who will form a government. Other religious parties ended up with hardly a seat to call their own. Nor was tribalism a guarantee of victory. One tribal leader, Hamid Shafi al-Issawi, had counted on the 50,000 votes of his huge Issawi tribe in Anbar Province; he couldn’t even muster the few thousand votes needed to take a seat. Even the clout of party leaders proved dubious. Those leaders, who formed voting alliances called lists, chose the order in which their members appeared on the ballot. That ensured that the leaders themselves were big winners in position No. 1. But further down the list, the order counted for less. For example, Mohammed Ridah Fawzi, a follower of the militant leader Moktada al-Sadr, finished sixth and won a seat, even though he was 86th on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Alliance list. And (Boston, take note), the patronage vote was nearly nonexistent. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, whose 500,000-strong ministry includes the local and national police, got only 3,000 votes and lost his seat, even though he headed his own list. And the defense minister, Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassim, in charge of the country’s 150,000-man army, won only 887 votes — not even a battalion’s worth — even though he was 16th on the prime minister’s State of Law list, which took 89 seats in all — two fewer than the victorious Iraqiya list of candidates, led by the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi (who won big among Sunnis as well as secular voters). “Is this possible?” Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki asked rhetorically in response to the defense minister’s drubbing. Many Iraqis watching his speech guffawed their assent. Even heavy publicity for a prominent, well-known candidate didn’t help. In fact, it sometimes seemed to hurt. The head of the Accountability and Justice Commission, Ali Faisal al-Lami, who was in the news daily as he disqualified allegedly Baathist candidates by the hundreds, won only 703 votes, disqualifying him now from his own seat in Parliament. The voters’ discrimination was particularly profound in the largely Sunni Anbar Province, where Mr. Allawi’s Iraqiya list won 11 seats compared to only 2 for the Islamist Tawafaq party, which had been the only Sunni party running there in 2005. Mr. Issawi, the tribal leader who couldn’t win a seat, ran on the Tawafaq list; he was bested by a much less weighty cousin, Rafiie al-Issawi, a Falluja hospital director famous for negotiating peace with the American Marines, who ran on Iraqiya’s ticket. Even leaders of the Awakening, or Sons of Iraq — the Sunni tribal force that turned against the insurgency — didn’t do well in Anbar; they were rejected by voters as too uneducated. “We cannot forget what the Awakening did for us,” said Haitham Hameed, a car parts shop owner in Falluja, “but we cannot vote for them to sit in our Parliament.” Like most Arabs, Iraqis take their politics seriously, and discuss it endlessly, with the same sort of passion for detail, over cups of strong tea, that Americans are more likely to exhibit when discussing sports over beers. But unlike most Arabs, who are ruled by monarchs and autocrats, Iraqis now have moved from the tea shops to the voting booths, and seem determined to make the most of it. “I am really proud of the Iraqi people and how carefully they voted this time,” said Saeed al-Jumaily, The New York Times’ local correspondent in Falluja, who was in an ebullient mood when he dropped by the Baghdad bureau for a post-election visit. A funny thing was happening now, he said; people in that hardcore Sunni heartland had started praising Amar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, a Shiite party, for the moderation of his recent statements. They were probably responding to Mr. Hakim’s riposte after Mr. Maliki refused to accept the election results: “Some people believe in democracy only when it favors them.” It was, as Mr. Jumaily noted, a good omen. He has worked in Anbar for this newspaper for seven years, and this is the first time he’s felt confident enough in the future to see his name published in it.

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