Canada will monitor Iraqi elections

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There is concern that Canada is furthering the political agenda of U.S. President George W. Bush, who is pushing hard for the voting to go ahead as scheduled.

Although Canada conspicuously stayed out of the war in Iraq two years ago, Ottawa's decision to help monitor the controversial January 30 elections in the violence-torn country has some critics wondering about the choices being made by a government that styles itself as a promoter of democracy internationally.

“The Iraq situation is insane,” said Duff Conacher, coordinator of Democracy Watch, a non-partisan advocate of increased citizen participation and less dominance by wealthy interests in Canada.

“There should not be an election. It is not possible to hold a free and fair election when there is a very plausible threat that people will be killed if they go to the ballot box,” he said.

Conacher is concerned that Canada is furthering the political agenda of U.S. President George W. Bush, who is pushing hard for the voting to go ahead as scheduled, even as violent resistance to the occupation continues to grow and the biggest Sunni political party has pulled out of the polls completely.

Canada does have something to offer other countries in terms of its experience with independent and fair elections and the rule of law, says Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute, which opposes corporate-led globalization.

At the same time, Clarke says that Canada is in danger of “being led by the nose in terms of U.S. empire interests.”

Canada's chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, defends the credibility of the international team of experts that this country is heading up to assess the fairness of the Iraqi election.

The majority of officials on the team will probably be based in neighbouring Jordan and not set foot in Iraq itself. Nevertheless, they can still contact groups within Iraq and assess matters such as voter registration and the rules governing the listing of political parties and individual candidates on the ballot, Kingsley told Canadian Press.

“Even though there is value to electoral observation in the visual sense of visiting polls and so onâe¦I've always said if I had my druthers I'd rather be doing this type of thing,” Kingsley said.

Another difficulty for Canada is that despite our parliamentary tradition and constitutional human rights protections, some flaws still persist in our approach to democracy.

In elections organized by the United Nations, the actual process is managed by an independent body that is not connected to the government in power. But Canada fails the test in this regard, according to Conacher.

Both Kingsley and his staff — the returning officers in each constituency who decide whether someone gets to vote at election time — are appointed by the prime minister.

In workshops organized around the world by Kingsley, continues Conacher, “they ask him, 'well who appoints all of these election officials?' and they laugh at him when he says 'the head of the ruling [Liberal] party'.”

While Clarke disagrees, believing that Canadian law provides adequate protection in terms of electoral autonomy, the Polaris Institute director says there are many developing countries that are further ahead in terms of democracy than Canada.

“There is much more participatory democracy built into local governments in a country like Brazil than we have anywhere near in this country. We are top down in our politics, period,” says Clarke.

Tom Axworthy, a former principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, says that Canadians are frequently invited to monitor and help organize elections — for example, Mexico's first fair elections in 2000 — because “we are a little more modest about (democratic) accomplishments than many others,” particularly the U.S.

Now head of the Study of Democracy at Queen's University in Kingston, Axworthy says Canada should not have any qualms regarding the promotion of the Canadian brand of democracy.

“The fact we have a turnout of 50 per cent shouldn't prevent us from promoting the idea that the villagers of Afghanistan should have some method of influencing their own destiny, as opposed to relying on an autocratic élite who have ruined the country throughout their history,” Axworthy says.

He adds that while extreme poverty and the lack of a sizeable middle class can make the establishment of democracy more problematic, it should still be attempted. “Giving people some chance to express their own vision is as important as development,” he says.

While elections can serve as important moments in a developing country's evolution, they are often organized and monitored as one-time affairs with little regard to what might happen afterward, notes Iris Almeida, director of policy and programs at the Montreal-based Rights and Democracy, a non-partisan group created by Parliament in 1988 to encourage human rights and democratic institutions around the world.

“You have to be there before the elections, during the elections and then after the elections, not just a snapshot of getting in and getting out. We don't believe that kind of election monitoring is in any way useful or effective,” she says. “For us, election monitoring means going to the country in advance, supporting the civic education of the groups in the country, in order to prepare their population for the election process.”

The monitoring of elections is now “in vogue” because of the resources made available by international institutions, including the United Nations, Almeida says. At the same time, fewer funds are provided to support civil society groups — representing women, small entrepreneurs, labour and others — that help sustain democracy over the long haul.

The irony for Almeida is that the governments of these same developing countries have lost the ability to make decisions regarding the social and economic well being of their citizens as a result of structural adjustment policies implemented by international institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

“The absence of (remedies) makes it difficult for people to claim their rights. It almost makes it a non-right,” she added.

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