Identity Voting in Iraq
A shrewd Iraqi observer, Nibras Kazimi, had it mostly right when he said, a week after the December 15 parliamentary voting, that Iraq had held a census rather than an election. Those who bet against "identity politics" were not vindicated. The big Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, swept--with a huge margin--the nine Shiite provinces in the south and the Middle Euphrates; the Kurdistan Alliance claimed three provinces in the north (and, by a considerably smaller margin, Kirkuk as well); while the Sunni Arabs delivered their votes to rehabilitated elements of the Baath and to the Sunni Islamist groups that had emerged as their standard-bearers after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Baghdad voted its complex and checkered identity: The Shiite slate had polled 59 percent of the vote, the Sunni parties had taken 19 percent, and the "secular" slate of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had taken 14 percent.
The big victory by the United Iraqi Alliance was no mystery. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani had declared his "neutrality," but there was enough vagueness in his position that the United Iraqi Alliance could still claim authority of the Shiite hierarchy in Najaf. The operatives of the big Shiite list were not above dissimulation, and they were good at manipulating cultural and religious symbols. Vast numbers of Shiite men and women, filled with piety, did not have it in them to go against the clerical institution of their sect. And there were reports of clerics at the entrance of polling stations asking voters to swear on the Koran that they would vote for the United Iraqi Alliance. There was little room for candidates running on "competence" and managerial skills or betting on nonsectarian nationalism.
The Shiites were being hunted down by jihadists, targeted solely for their identity and faith, and they would vote that identity. It did not matter that the Shiite-led cabinet of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari had not been skilled at governance. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, perhaps the United Iraqi Alliance's most powerful bloc, had money and manpower, the weight of its own television station, the patronage of the resourceful Iranian state next door. It had going for it the powerful Shiite sense of deliverance from old weakness to power and redemption. It would be difficult for political men like Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi to withstand this sort of power.
In their pride, Iraqi secularists would claim that this sectarianism had been bred by the American regency, that the foreign stewards had empowered the Hakim family of the Supreme Council and the Sunni Baathists and the Barzani in Kurdistan, that they had not shown sufficient respect for men and women long severed from the claims of sectarianism and ethnicity.
Voting the rage. Admittedly, there was a measure of truth in that lament. But it would be fair to say that this was the Iraq America found and that Iraqi identities had been sharpened by a great, inevitable struggle over the country's spoils and its very definition. The unease of the Kurds with Iraq was not an American invention. Nor could one expect the Sunni Arabs to vote anything beyond their rage at their loss of dominion and their determination to keep the Shiite seminarians and their militias--and their newfound power--in check.
Elections offered no panacea, just the promise that the struggle over the country would be pursued through non-violent means. The old transitional assembly had scant Sunni Arab representation--6 percent in all. There would be larger representation by that community this time around. It was as sure as anything that this would not satisfy a community that claimed a plurality of the country's population. But the elections were still Iraq's--and America's--most reasonable way out of the prevailing stalemate.
Grant George W. Bush his historic wager on the proposition that liberty could yet put down roots in seemingly difficult places. A record 11 million voters took part in this latest round of elections. They were not perfect, these elections. But they were better than the alternatives, and they put to shame the authoritarian regimes in Iraq's neighborhood.
The winners must now govern, and the verdict of demography and of the numbers will have to be "corrected" by a political process that grants the Sunni Arabs, and the Shiite secularists as well, a commensurate role in charting the country's journey out of its current travails.
This story appears in the January 9, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.