Middle East

Middle East

Bush's Definition of Democracy

A Sudanese woman at a refugee camp in Sudan's Darfur region

Afghan election officials empty ballot boxes at a guarded counting center in Kabul on October 11, 2004. (Photo: Shah Marai/AFP-Getty Images)

When Vladimir Putin used illegal tactics to engineer the election of his handpicked subordinate, Ahmad Kadyrov as president of Chechnya last October, Western pundits were quick to condemn the election as a farce. Yet the same media talking heads have expressed little outrage at the series of equally farcical 'elections' organised by the Bush administration in the name of exporting democracy, be it to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani recently expressed his unhappiness, at the plans of the main US-affiliated political parties to negotiate a 'consensus slate' of candidates for the upcoming UN Security Council-mandated elections in Iraq. In some countries, with a well-established parliamentary system and a history of active political parties and an inclusive public discourse, alliances between political parties are not necessarily a problem. In India, for example, such electoral alliances may be necessary to get smaller parties some degree of parliamentary representation. In Iraq, however, the effect may be extremely damaging.

According to a recent New York Times editorial, such a 'consensus' slate could create 'essentially a one-party election unless Iraq's fragmented independents manage to organise themselves into an effective new political force.' Without adequate safeguards, wrote the Times, in an uncharacteristically direct manner, 'Iraq's first free election may look uncomfortably like the plebiscites choreographed to produce 98 percent majorities for Saddam Hussein.'

While the Times neglected to mention this fact, the Bush administration has established a track record of managing elections to produce such lopsided results for its favoured candidates first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

During the June 2002 Afghan Loya jirga, roughly 1,500 delegates assembled to 'elect' the interim president of the country. Although all delegates were under a great degree of pressure from US-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.

Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, delegates to the loya jirga, told the New York Times that 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.' When the assembly resumed, delegates were given a choice between Hamid Karzai and two unknown candidates thrown into the field purely for symbolic value (For example, one of them was a woman).

More recently, the Bush administration has been busy altering the timetable of Afghanistan's elections to meet its own needs. It has pressured the Afghan Electoral Commission to delay the parliamentary elections until next April, but push through the presidential elections in October. The plan is clearly to ensure that there will be no time for anyone to emerge as a national-level alternative to Hamid Karzai as the president.

Of the current 18 candidates, only Yunus Qanooni enjoys significant name recognition and no one considers him to pose a credible challenge to Karzai. Even US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (who is closely linked with neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz), has been using coercion and bribery to pressure candidates -- be it Qanooni or Muhammad Mohaqiq, who represents the minority Hazaras -- to drop out of the race. Qanooni and 13 other candidates recently came together to devise strategies to deal with Khalilzad's bullying.

The US record in Iraq is not much different. The administration has touted the local elections, held under the aegis of the US occupation, as evidence of its democratic intentions. But the rhetoric far outstrips the reality. In many instances, the 'election' consisted of the appointment of the mayor and/or city council members by the local US commander, sometimes to disastrous effect. For example, the US appointed a Sunni from Baghdad to be mayor of the mostly Shi'a Najaf, cancelled an election he would surely have lost, but later had to remove him from office because of charges of corruption and Ba'athist links.

In Basra, British and US forces appointed local officials to power only to get rid of them later, deciding instead to allow Iraqis to only fill technocratic positions rather than award them political power. In Kirkuk, only 300 delegates, all handpicked and vetted by US forces, were allowed to vote in the 'election.'

In late June 2003, US commanders ordered a halt to all local elections. The problem: people and groups opposed to the occupation were expected to win in many of the races. A few days later, Paul Bremer approved resumption of elections, but allowed US commanders to choose between appointing local officials, electing them by specially vetted caucuses, or holding a real election. Not coincidentally, the new policy allows US authorities to choose the form of 'election' based on the likelihood of getting the result they want.

Of course, irrespective of the method of selection, the US commanders can always countermand any city council decision and dissolve a council if they so chose. At the national level, the situation in Iraq has been similarly manipulated. To begin with, elections have been postponed repeatedly, even though it would be easier to create voter rolls in Iraq than it was in Afghanistan (For example, the ubiquitous ration cards could have been used as a basis for voter identification and registration). If now a definite date has been set for January, 2005, its only because other countries on the Security Council made it a condition for approving Resolution 1546, on the so-called 'transfer of sovereignty.'

Meanwhile, however, numerous other aspects of the political process have been either eliminated or undermined. In the immediate aftermath of the US invasion, Paul Bremer cancelled an assembly of members of the Iraqi opposition -- mostly US-designated, exile groups -- planned for June 2003. His reason: the 'opposition' was not representative of the country. A month later, Bremer would handpick 25 people, 16 of whom were exiles, to form the Iraqi Governing Council.

In August, a national conference of nearly 1300 delegates met to determine the makeup of the 100-member interim National Assembly, whose formation was mandated by the 'transfer of sovereignty' process. Ostensibly picked by democratic processes by their local districts, 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 organisation was battling the US military in Najaf at the time, boycotted the conference).

However, the delegates at the conference soon learned that the entire process of selection was a giant sham. They would be presented with a pre-selected slate of 81 candidates (the 19 members of the IGC having been given automatic membership in the assembly), chosen as a result of back-room negotiations between the major US-affiliated parties. Attempts by small parties to form an alternative slate fell through. In the end, the US-backed slate was not even presented to the delegates for formal approval.

Americans tend 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 White House takes this attitude to an unprecedented extreme. Time and again, the Bush administration has shown that it is willing to hold elections in Afghanistan or Iraq, but only when it can control the outcome beyond the shadow of a doubt. There is no reason to believe that the January elections in Iraq will be any different.