The courageous and often festive march of millions of Iraqis to the voting booths on January 31, in spite of threats and acts of violence and intimidation, has demonstrated the Iraqis' keen desire to turn the page on almost four decades of totalitarianism, wars, oppression and fear and to embrace freedom and democracy. The elections were a first step on what may be a long and arduous road to change – but they are nonetheless a significant first step.
These were also complex elections, as voters were asked to cast two ballots: one ballot for the national assembly and one ballot for the 18 provincial councils. The Kurds cast a third ballot for the Kurdish parliament. Altogether, there were 17,000 candidates on 223 lists. The number of candidates was huge, considering that they were competing for 275 seats in the national assembly, 41 seats for every provincial council (Baghdad was an exception with 51 seats) and 111 seats for the Kurdish parliament.
The sizeable Iraqi voter turnout despite the threats caught much of the Arab press and the press of the neighboring countries by surprise – for some, unpleasant surprise – and their reports and editorials reflect their astonishment.
The Iraqi Press Comments on the Elections
Due to curfews and other restrictions on the movement of vehicles, the Iraqi dailies were not published for five days. They renewed their publication on February 1, and have since been offering an assortment of views on the elections, mostly positive.
In its editorial 'Victory for All the Iraqis,' the daily Al-Zaman, which is published simultaneously in London and Baghdad, wrote: "The success which characterized the elections is not a monopoly of one list or a limited number of lists; instead, it is a success for all the lists, and thus for all Iraqis. There are no winners or losers in adopting national values."
In the same vein, the Iraqi daily Al-Mada stated in an editorial titled 'Now… Not Tomorrow': "Who could have expected this popular victory under the Iraqi conditions, conditions of occupation, the blowing up of children and cars, mortar fire and assassinations, and then the threat 'to wash the streets of Baghdad with the blood of the voters' which appeared in a terrorist statement distributed on the eve of the elections?
"Friends and neutral [people], and even politicians who are children of this country, offered modest estimates – the Iraqi body is sick. They wagered on the passing of the election experience with the least losses and least results. However, what happened was a surprise to all, coming almost like a shock – particularly to those who expected or wished for failure."
In the Al-Mu'tamar daily, which isthe organ of the Iraqi National Congress, D. Ahmad Abdullah wrote about 'Election Celebration Day in Iraq': "On the historical day of January 30, the Iraqi rebel emerged from his fortress to shatter all the obstacles in his path. The masses of Iraqi heroes emerged to vote for the first time with freedom, and to voluntarily elect the National Assembly members."
The daily Al-Sabah, which often reflects the views of the Iraqi government, headlined its editorial 'First Round –Victory!'In contrast, the daily Al-Shahed sarcastically wrote: 'Allawi's List Won in the Green Zone.'
An encouraging statement was delivered by the League of Muslim Scholars, which speaks for the Iraqi Sunnis. The League said it would "respect the choice of those who voted" but would consider the next government as lacking "sufficient legitimacy."Clearly, the League will seek to strike a deal with the new government.
Syrian Official Press: A Non-Event
After days and weeks of criticizing the timing of the elections and underscoring the impending Sunni boycott of the elections, the tone of the Syrian press changed dramatically the day after Iraqis went to the polls. The one exception was the Syrian government-controlled press, which treated the elections as a non-event.
On its front page, the government daily Al-Thawra featured stories about the death of an American soldier and the downing of the British Hercules. The ruling Ba'th Party's official daily Teshreen's headline was similar: 'During Iraqi Election Day: 13 [terrorist] Operations, 60 Killed, and the Destruction of a British Plane.'Ironically, the purple ink that dyed the forefingers of the Iraqi voters has been adopted by the Syrian opposition as its symbol of defiance.
London Arabic Language Papers: Enthusiasm for the Elections
One of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the elections came from the London-based daily Al-Hayat, that wrote in its editorial: "The scene of elections, ballot boxes, voters, the competition between parties and lists [of candidates], the election campaign and counter-campaign, and the guarantee of the women's share in the [National Assembly] seats transmit joy to the heart."
After praising the voter's courage, the daily went on to say: "What we have seen in occupied Iraq is more advanced than what we know in the independent and liberated Arab countries. The respectable average participation in the voting has, despite everything, rendered those who resist the new circumstances less legitimate – and ultimately closer to terrorism than to resistance."
The editorial was capped by a dramatic cartoon showing a hand rising from a ballot box engulfed in fire and smoke, signaling 'V' for victory.
Similarly, the other London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat wrote: "The Iraqi citizen has sent all the political parties and groups a decisive message whose essence is that people have defied death and explosives, and have stood in long election lines oblivious to the alliance of international terrorism and the remnants of the Saddam regime. They will accept nothing but victory."
In another piece, the newspaper editorialized: "For the first time in the history of modern Iraq, the old, the young, men, and women have marched to uphold one of the remarkable symbols of courage and determination – to announce, with ink-dyed [index] finger, the beginning of a new era."
Views from the Gulf
Ahmad Jarallah, a key figure in the Arab liberal movement and editor-in-chief of the liberal Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, wrote in editorial titled 'An Iraqi Lesson for the Trembling Rulers': "It was clear that if there was a will and if there was courage, victory was inevitable. In fact, will was abundant among the Iraqi leaders, and courage was abundant among their people. The result was the defeat of terrorism, of those who stand behind it, and of those who wish for the return of darkness to this country [Iraq] which has freed itself and is about to soar into the skies of liberty.
"We expected the elections to take place in peace; we did not expect such sweeping success."
The United Arab Emirates Information Agency issued a statement hailing the courage of the Iraqi people for delivering a strong blow to terrorists and terrorism. It concluded its laudatory statement by characterizing the elections as "a wedding celebration for democracy."
In a separate statement, this same agency asked: "Why can't honest and democratic elections be held, except in Arab countries under occupation?" The statement asked further whether "the virus of the Iraqi and Palestinian democratic elections" could one day infect the remaining Arab countries. The statement seems to search for "a solution to the incurable complex in the Arab region" that causes the region to resist the democratic tide that spread in Eastern Europe and Latin American in the 1990s.
The Saudi daily Al-Watan editorialized that despite all the events that have surrounded it, the elections "have revealed great Iraqi enthusiasm for democracy and the innate perception by the Iraqis, particularly among the simple folk, of the importance of participating in charting the characteristics of the future."
In the Saudi daily Arab News, Saudi columnist Dr. Mohammad T. Al-Rasheed was effusive in his comments about the Iraqi elections: "Bravo Iraq! For history, January 30, 2005, is one magnificent day for Iraq and the Arab nation. Regardless of won or who lost, the day should be a permanent fixture on the Arab calendar forever. I don't want to talk politics; I simply want to celebrate history. Despite everything, the Iraqis voted. They did so with a passion and seriousness that gives the lie to the cliché that Arabs are not ready for democracy."
Jordan and Egypt: Ambiguity
The Jordanian government daily Al-Dustour found it difficult to reconcile the Jordanian government's ambiguity about the elections and the reality on the ground in Iraq: "That the elections could have been conducted yesterday in Iraq the way they were conducted is something which exceeds expectations. But those who boycotted the elections [the Sunnis] should not consider their national position as having been defeated as a result of the relatively large number of voters who cast their ballots at the polling stations."
The Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram wrote that it was important to underscore those who refused to vote as much as those who were lauded for voting, and that "Naturally, these elections were not a purely Iraqi affair, given that President Bush had a stake in their being carried out on time, regardless of the cost or the losses. The important thing for him was the pictures of Iraqis at the ballot boxes in the American and international newspapers, so he could tell the American public, and the Arabs, the mother of all lies: that the dream of democracy is alive in Iraq."
In another article, Al-Ahram criticized the timing of the elections, which could exclude four Iraqi provinces suspected of terrorism. The paper considered this exclusion "a distortion of the idea of democracy as perceived by the Greeks, which is that the people – the entire people – govern itself by itself."
Making a note of the violence in Iraq, aother Egyptian government daily, Al-Gumhuriyya, cast aspersions on the American design for the 'Greater Middle East': "The Iraqi people paid a heavy price during the day of bloody and secret [sic]elections, suffering suicide operations, the firing of missiles and the explosions of bombs. [All this happened] despite security measures by the occupation forces and the interim [Iraqi] government.
"The experience of the Iraqi election and its frightful aftermath has confirmed that foreign intervention in the internal affairs of countries and the occupation of their lands are fundamentally unsuitable as a basis for reforms, all fancy slogans withstanding!"
Views from Lebanon
In a column in the Lebanese English-language The Daily Star, Maggie Mitchell-Salem wrote: "Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis often signed their ballots in blood to affirm their undying loyalty to their leader. On Sunday, they dipped their fingers in ink to affirm their commitment to a democratic Iraq. …The vote was cathartic, a way for them to vent grief while resolving to save the future from the ravages of the past."
Views from Iran
Iran was one neighbor who forcefully supported elections on schedule in Iraq – in hopes of seeing the rise of a Shi'ite government working in concert with Iran.
The Iranian reformist daily Sharq wrote: "Vote counting in Iraq's parliamentary election will soon be completed. Iraqis took part in a general election for the first time in 50 years. The election was held in a healthy atmosphere, despite threats by terrorists to prevent it. The percentage of voters… was much higher than predicted. It is evident that Iraq is not a totally safe place now, but it is also obvious that the rule of a minority over the majority in that country has ended."
By contrast, in the conservative daily Kayhan, Hussein Saffar-Harandi gave the credit for Iraq's elections to Iran's Islamic regime, and called on the Iraqis to "thank" the Iranians that election day coincided with the rise of the Khomeini regime in 1979. The daily maintained that the 1979 Islamic revolution and Iranian students' takeover of "the American spy nest, [i.e. the U.S. Embassy in Tehran] started a chain of events and processes that led to the Saddam's removal and the launching of the elections."
Turkey: Grave Concerns
Turkey had grave concerns about Iraq's elections even before they took place and these concerns have only intensified after the elections were carried out successfully. The Turkish press has reflected upon these concerns in numerous reports and editorials, some of which are summarized in a special annex to this report. In particular, Turkish newspapers featured Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's strong statements targeting the U.S. administration over the recent developments in Iraq. Erdogan criticized the U.S. for failing to stop Kurdish attempts to gain control of the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and for its slowness in acting to rein in PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party) terrorist organization based in northern Iraq. He said that President George W. Bush had assured him he would look into the matter, but had done nothing so far. He also said that Turkey was taking precautions regarding Kirkuk, but declined to give details.
Questions About the Integrity of the Elections
Even before the votes were counted some questioned the integrity of the elections. Leading the election critics is the pro-Saddam London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which stated: "The voices questioning the integrity of the Iraqi elections have begun to rise after the broad internal and external discussion about the elections' success. Political forces in northern and southern Iraq have accused the large political parties of dominating the election process and of allowing their supporters to vote several times or on behalf of dead people; to manipulate the voting exercise; and to change the ballot box results."
Behind the rejection of the elections by many of the Arab countries is the fear of a spillover of democratic sentiment across a largely autocratic region. "Arab governments may not say it, but they don't want Iraq's democratic experiment to succeed," said Saudi columnist Turki al-Hamad, a former political science professor who has been harassed and arrested by the Saudi police several times. "Such success would embarrass them and present them with the dilemma of either changing or being changed."
Special Annex: Turkish Media Reactions
Concerned about major issues regarding the Kurdish population on both sides of its border with Iraq as well as the status of the Turkmen in Kirkuk, Turkey had serious concerns regarding the Iraqi elections.
Writing in the Turkish daily Tercuman, columnist Cengiz Candar commented on both the ambivalence of some Arab countries regarding the Iraqi elections as well as Ankara's inability "to love the Iraqi democracy." He further analyzed why some Arab countries were disturbed by the Iraqi elections. Candar identified Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt, as wary of the January 30 elections, particularly the high participation in them signaling the "birth of democracy." According to Candar, "Syria, right next to Iraq, has a Kurdish population in areas near its borders with Iraq and Turkey. It is ruled by a fascist one-party regime exactly like the Saddam's, and the party's name is Ba'th, the name as Saddam's!
"And, if Iraq is going to have a government of majority rule, what is neighboring Jordan supposed to do? Palestinians are the majority here, but the regime is in the control of the 'East Bank' Jordanians.
"Saudi Arabian oil comes from areas adjoining Iraq, where the majority of the population is Shiite, exactly as in the South of Iraq. If a 'Shiite majority' government is established in Iraq, something in Saudi Arabia may 'break out.'
"As to Egypt, which considers itself the 'bastion of the Sunni Arab world,' the 'one-man' regime of Hosni Mubarak may understandably have misgivings about the recent developments [in Iraq]. The Arab regimes in the Middle East would naturally worry that an Iraq style 'democracy', especially in Iraq's present situation, would spread to them, like a 'contagious disease.'
"But why is Turkey, the 'democratic' country of the region, which is in the 'process of EU membership' so disturbed? Even France, 'number one opponent' of the war in Iraq has changed its attitude after the elections in Iraq. President Jacques Chirac congratulated President Bush on 'the participation' and 'security measures' which were provided. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier spoke of 'a new democratic beginning for the entire region.' Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, claims it is time to set aside difference and that now is 'the time for cooperation' to help strengthen democracy in Iraq.
"Here [in Turkey], on the other hand, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul are busy looking at Iraq only through 'Kirkuk lenses' and making statements every other day filled with 'red lines' and 'threats.' It seems that they are disturbed by the positive outcome of the Iraqi elections where the 'Sunni boycott' and 'resistance' failed to have any effect.
"Tayyip Erdogan's last words during an AK Party group meeting were: 'I am sorry to say that forces tasked with establishing order in Iraq have failed to respond to certain developments which our nation has deeply regretted. We had expected the concerned countries to take all necessary precautions without delay, against development which can jeopardize Iraq's internal peace, democratic future and its relations with the neighboring countries.
"Forces which say they came to the region to bring democracy have preferred to remain indifferent to the anti-democratic ambitions.
"Everyone must know that Turkey will never permit chaos in a region with which we have not only historic but also familial ties.
"The prime minister, who had directed his criticism of America in his last week's interview with Newsweek and more recently with the Wall Street Journal, this time chose the AK Party group meeting to voice his feelings of anger towards America – of course, without neglecting to add, 'Turkey will not allow this'."
Taking the criticism of the United States a few notches higher, Sadettin Teksoy wrote in the daily Star: "Blood does not stopin Iraq; it flows like water… after Saddam. Elections are held for the first time, just because the U.S. wants them. During the voting process, men and women are separated for the first time. These elections are described as 'free elections'… yet they will enter the pages of history as 'bloody elections.' Despite all the safety measures, the security forces cannot stop the attacks. The election day toll is 36 dead, 100 wounded! Despite the fact that Americans are the target because of the conditions they created, Iraqi is killing fellow Iraqi, with no pity!"
Continuing under the subheading 'Postmodern Genocide,' Teksoy added: "[…] For the Iraqi there is no end to pain and tears, both during the time of Saddam and at the present time… America, looking straight into the eyes of the world, turned Iraq into a 'Global Cemetery.' Nobody says a word. Iraqis are dying along with all their rights. There is no end to the explosions of bombs, rockets, and suicide attacks – and there is no willingness to end those. The U.S. announces that the voter turnout was 72% and that first 'free elections' were held in Iraq. Lies, total LIES!.. What took place can only be described as 'primitive elections,' 'bloody elections'…"
Writing in the same vein in the Turkish daily Aksam, columnist Zulfikar Dogan, commented: "In short, after the USA scattered, divided, burned, destroyed Iraq, and now having announced that 'Iraq has moved to democracy' with these false elections, it will move on. Where to? To creating similar chaos in Iran, in Syria… in order to expand the war and the chaos… to expand and create new pretexts for new wars. […] Somehow, if Israel has nuclear power it is considered a 'good thing,' but if Iran has the same, it justifies 'preemption.'
"If a Kurdish State is established in Northern Iraq, if violence begins in Kirkuk and Turkmenis are massacred, if a civil war breaks in Iraq, if PKK takes part in the Iraqi administration and launches terror or policies against Turkey, and if Turkey opts to take action for her security, what will happen? [No doubt] the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and the whole world will say, 'Interfere with a democratically elected government, and the will of the Iraqi people??? How dare you!' [Then] they will bully Turkey. They will initiate embargoes and incite our 'Southeast.' Let all this be known."
Attempting to place the recent elections in Iraq in a broader historical context yet maintain a healthy dose of ambivalence towards the U.S. intentions, columnist Mine G. K?r?kkanat wrote in the Turkish daily RADIKAL under the title 'The Birth of Independent Kurdistan,': "Those who interpret the Iraqi elections as 'the triumph of democracy' understand nothing of democracy. The fact that so many Iraqi people braved the fear of terror to go to the ballot box is clear evidence of their desire for democracy, but it is also pathetic. Just take a look at the democracy brought about by elections in Afghanistan. It is not a new tactic by the U.S. to arrange for elections in the countries it occupies. This system of 'imposed democracy' began in the Axis countries that the U.S defeated in World War II, where it was a success. In the same period of time, for some reason the U.S. did not demand democracy, nor forced elections, in the South American countries of Chile and Bolivia, right in its own back yard, where the U.S. intervened though did not directly occupy. On the contrary: it established dictatorial regimes allied with the U.S. Also in the same years, it supported and cooperated with absolute monarchies such as the Shah in Iran, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and even military juntas such as Pakistan and Franco's Spain.
"[...] If the 'democracy' the [U.S.] established in Afghanistan and Iraq turns out to work against the U.S.'s own interests, have no doubt that it will impose another coup which will establish a carbon copy of Saddam 'to bring peace and stability' to the land. But for the time being, the result of the Iraqi elections will be the birth of an Independent State of Kurdistan, a victory of the hundred-year-old U.S. plan for the Middle East. In fact, I think that there is no chance of a democratic future for Iraq; the only result of the Iraqi elections is to nail down the birth of a Kurdish state, which the U.S. had already decided on back in the 1890s."
The most favorable interpretation of the meaning of the Iraqi elections is provided by columnist Cenziz Candar. In an op-ed titled "A Formidable Victory to 'Democracy'" in theTurkish daily Tercuman, Candarwrote: "[… There were] those who boycotted the elections and threatened [with death] anyone who participated in them, who hung posters in the 'Sunni triangle' reading ' min al-sanduk ila al-sanduk' ['from the polling box to the coffin']… But the result was that the 'polling box- sanduk ' defeated the 'coffin- sanduk, ' when a significant number of Iraqis showed great courage by taking the future of their country into their own hands through 'democracy.' Their participation is thought to have been between 60% and 72%. Even if we believe the lower figure of 60%, this is a 'formidable' ratio. After having been oppressed for 35 years under ruthless tyranny, and having lived through a war and the terror and violence in its aftermath, if 60% of the people decide to vote despite all the threats, it really draws a 'formidable' picture. […]
"Of course, the Iraqi elections cannot be described as 'perfect.' How could they be? Which country can claim 100% perfection in their 'democratic process?' Can the facts that majority of the Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections, that the vote took place under the 'shadow of arms' – let's name it properly, 'under terror threats' – detract from the fact that these elections should be saluted as the 'birth of democracy' in a Middle Eastern country, and from the futility of argument about the legitimacy of the results?
"Whatever they [the Turkish officials] say, vast majority of the Iraqi people want 'democracy' and they want to build their own future".
* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.
See also, Inquiry & Analysis No. 199, 'Iraqi Elections (I): The Imperatives of Elections on Schedule', December 15, 2004, Iraqi Elections (I): The Imperatives of Elections on Schedule, Inquiry & Analysis No. 201, 'Iraqi Elections (II): The Launching of the Campaign', December 31, 2004, Iraqi Elections (II): The Launching of the Campaign, Inquiry & Analysis No. 202, 'Iraqi Elections (III): The Islamist and Terrorist Threats', January 18, 2005, Iraqi Elections (III): The Islamist and Terrorist Threats, Inquiry & Analysis No. 203, 'Iraqi Elections (IV): Platforms and Campaign Strategies', January 28, 2005, Iraqi Elections (IV): Platforms and Campaign Strategies.
Al-Zaman (Baghdad), January 31, 2005.
Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 2, 2005.
Al-Mu'tamar (Baghdad), February 2, 2005.
Al-Sabah (Baghdad), February 2, 2005.
Al-Shahed (Baghdad), February 3, 2005.
Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 3, 2005.
Al-Thawra (Damascus) and Tishreen (Damascus), both of January 31, 2005.
Reform Party of Syria, news bulletin, February 1, 2005.
Al-Hayat (London), January 31, 2005.
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 31, 2005.
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 31, 2005.
Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 31, 2005.
Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 1, 2005.
Arab News, February 3, 2005.
Al-Dustour (Amman), January 31, 2005.
Al-Ahram (Cairo), February 1, 2005.
Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 31, 2005.
Using the word "secret" to disparage the elections in Iraq is quite revealing coming from a daily which has regularly reported the election of the Egyptian president by a majority of 98-99 percent, sometimes before the ballot boxes were closed.
Al-Gomhouria (Egypt), January 31, 2005.
The Daily Star (Lebanon), February 1, 2005.
Sharq (Tehran), February 2, 2005.
Kayhan (Tehran), February 2, 2005.
TD News (Ankara), February 1, 2005.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 1, 2005.
Tehran Times (Iran), February 1, 2005.
Turcuman (Turkey), February 2, 2005.
Star (Turkey) February 1, 2005.
Aksam (Turkey), February 1, 2005.
RADIKAL (Turkey), February 2, 2005.
Tercuman (Turkey), February 1, 2005.