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Democracy is no Good in Parts

Donald Rumsfeld claims that three-quarters of an election is better than none, so next January's turnout in Iraq may exclude the Sunni triangle. But asks PETER PRESTON, would President Bush accept the disenfranchisement of a large chunk of Texas?

Sometimes there's a tricky, twisty moment when a party goes on too long. You're tired, you're aching, you really have to go. So you edge to the door and look vaguely round for the host. Sorry, it's been wonderful, but it's a way long home and my mother isn't on top form and I promised...mumble, mumble. But thank you very, very much for a lovely time.

And you scurry for the stairs as the words ring hollow on your lips. And you sound like Donald Rumsfeld.

Hey Donald! We thought you were in Iraq for as long as it took to see perfect democracy reign, until Baghdad was a Swiss-style model of purity for the Middle East? But now you cough and look around and head for the fire exit.

Well, what is perfection? "We had something like 200 or 300 or 400 people killed in the major cities of America last year and is that perfectly peaceful? No. What's the difference? We just didn't see every homicide in every major city in the United States on television every night."

Thank you and good night. The secretary of defence is talking about the moment when Iraq seems calm enough to quit. He is also talking about what kind of an Iraqi election next January lets the Pentagon leave the party early.

For there's a new tale in town, one eddying back and forth across a chorus of lips. Perhaps it began in Baghdad itself a couple of weeks ago when ministers started to say openly that not everywhere in Iraq needed to vote to make January a legitimate election. After all, in the US or the UK, a 50% turn-out - or even 40%, come to that - was deemed viable enough to build an administration on. Why set the Baghdad bar higher?

Or perhaps the script was basically written further away, in a back office of Washington DC: for it was also a variation on the theme that George Bush and Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Ayad Allawi, chanted on the White House lawn last week. Was there trouble in Iraq? Not on any national scale, they crooned. Maybe in no more than two or three provinces out of 18. Which turned out, on examination, to be the same number of provinces too prospectively unruly to vote next January if bloody push comes to violent shove.

But look coldly at what's involved. Welcome to the Sunni triangle, continuing heartland of resistance, rebellion and terrorism. It stretches, you'll remember, from Baghdad in the east to Ramadi in the west, and pokes north to Tikrit, Saddam's hometown; and never, of course, forget Falluja, boiling away in the middle. These aren't small, insignificant spots. Falluja has upwards of a quarter of a million population, Ramadi is touching 400,000 - and the Sunni areas of Baghdad run into millions.

Now, how would Blair fare if he announced that the Hampstead triangle - from the Heath to Luton to Oxford and back - was too wild to vote next May? How would Bush deal with the loss of his Stetson square, otherwise Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin?

Yet that, in broadly proportionate terms and with all due seriousness, is what's being suggested for Iraq. Any election, apparently, is better than none. A PR voting system based on nationwide party lists apparently makes it easier to leave Falluja or Ramadi out. Fifteen semi-peaceful provinces, at least, can do their own thing and confer a certain legitimacy on the rulers they choose. Apparently.

A car burns on a bridge near the road leading the Iraqi capital to Baghdad International Airport, 12 September 2004. US troop set this vehicle on fire after suspecting that it was carrying explosives. The incident occurred after a suicide car bomb smashed into a joint US and Iraqi National Guard convoy

Rumsfeld says that three-quarters of an election is better than none. But, of course, it's rubbish - and rubbish made worse by that national voting system.

How many millions of Sunnis would be denied their chance at the polls and thus their legitimate stake in the regime that follows Allawi? What use is a block vote if the blocks are knocked away? Where, when that happens, lies any hope of democratic acceptance and reconciliation?

There is no legitimate government waiting down that road. There is only a greater Shia Muslim hegemony founded on an exclusion that makes the 60% Shia majority more powerful yet. Why on earth suppose otherwise?

Because the bind is tighter and more desperate than ever. Because Allawi, hanging on and bolstering his White House leader, needs something he can call a mandate. Because the Shias are (rightly) restive. Because western public opinion has been told to hail Iraqi democracy.

The real debate, as usual, seems to sit between between the Pentagon and state department. Colin Powell's outspoken point man, Richard Armitage, tells a congressional committee that "we're going to have those elections in all parts of the country" and "open to all citizens".

Donald Rumsfeld meanwhile observes that big American cities had hundreds of murders a year. But does that mean America can't vote on November 2? No way, says Don. Turn out and beat the assault weapon ban.

And there, in the distance, you can hear the theme swell. George W talking down 9/11. After all, 47 out 50 states were totally unaffected. George W hailing the defeat of terrorism - at least in America, if not Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Madrid and points east.

Here's the solution we've been hungering for through the years, the ultimate miracle of half-full not half-empty. Call it the 50% solution, turned sunny side up. Lovely party. So sorry to go...

This article was first published in the Guardian Weekly



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