Did you feel snowed under by the blizzard of triumphal comment after the Iraq election? I did. It had the coercive tone of a party that makes you feel mingy and misanthropic if you don’t join in. Here goes anyway.

The election was not a U.S. project. It was forced on the U.S. against its will, by Shia religious leader Ali al-Sistani, who sent 100,000 people into the streets a year ago. The U.S. tried to retain power, through a series of nominated assemblies, and then to delay elections, largely to avoid conditions it now must deal with: possible civil war, pressure for Islamic law, calls for a pullout and real sovereignty.

Turnout was never the issue. Why wouldn’t people vote? It was a chance to express themselves, resist the occupation or just get the power back on. Turnout was a given in Shia and Kurdish areas. It was in doubt only in Sunni areas, where it was extremely low. In Ramadi, a mere 300 people voted. The authorities created the frenzy over turnout by lowballing expectations at under 50 per cent, then overstating results at 72 per cent. Final numbers are unclear but seem to be below 60 per cent and are far from amazing.

Islamic terrorists failed to stop the vote — their declared aim — because they never had the capacity to launch a massive attack. That’s why it’s an insurgency, not a war. The U.S. won the war; it’s the insurgency it can’t contain. They did wreak havoc, in their usual way. There were nine suicide bombers in Baghdad, according to Independent columnist, Robert Fisk, the largest number to kill themselves on a single day in the Middle East, despite a virtual lockdown. Almost 50 people were killed countrywide. The al-Zarqawi declaration against voting was a gift to the U.S. because it helped make turnout an issue. It’s the sort of thing that makes conspiracy theorists look for covert links between the sides.

If turnout wasn’t the issue, what was? The meaning of the election, which can be just one thing under an occupation: the end of the occupation. More broadly: true sovereignty, an end to foreign domination. Unless elections address that, they are a diversionary sideshow.

It is astounding how many election partiers ignored this matter. The Globe and Mail‘s editorial barely mentioned it. Richard Gwyn’s claim, in the Toronto Star, that “Bush was right” — not at all. Marcus Gee in The Globe, nothing. It’s not as if Canadians lack experience with this dilemma. We have elections — and we have ongoing problems with foreign domination. Back in 1841, Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, said: “Responsible government — a fine thing to talk about. But it means independence of foreign control, so far as it has meaning.” His words still echo.

Now does anyone think the U.S. invaded Iraq just to impose elections? It wasn’t even No. 1 on their own list of fake reasons. There will be two tests regarding sovereignty: oil and bases. Would the U.S. abide a government that deprived it of control of the region’s oil? As for bases, the leader of the party that seems to have won most votes says: “No one welcomes the foreign troops in Iraq. We believe in the ability of Iraqis to run their own issues, including the security issue.” George Bush has said the U.S. would withdraw forces from Iraq if the new government asked, but added that he expected its leaders to understand the “need for coalition troops at least until Iraqis are able to fight.” If I were Iraqi, that would sound ominous to me. I’d pause the party if I could, till some of these outcomes are clear.

But I want to acknowledge the mysterious power of simply voting. People accept it because it is what they are given instead of real sovereignty and democracy. When they are disappointed with the results, they elect someone else. When that doesn’t work, they call for reform, or grow cynical and drop out, or do something drastic.

Elections are a first attempt at democracy, not the finale. It is always inspiring to see human aspirations on display, as they almost always are, somewhere. What’s dispiriting is to see outsiders overstate the case, understate future problems, deny their own culpability, and take credit for what they themselves tried to prevent.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.