Iraqi Elections: First French Take

Time for a quick “day-after” survey of French press coverage of the Iraqi elections.

As usual, “day-after” is sometimes too early when it comes to significant, multi-dimensioned world events, as journalists and editors get all caught up with the reporting and don’t yet have time to sit back and think about what it all really meant. If you want an example of what I’m talking about here, and can read French yourself, I refer you to Le Monde’s editorial this morning, The Iraqi Wager. Spotlight on young French-Iraqi student; for her and her mother, being able to vote for the first time is truly a moving experience. (And this in what Le Monde explicitly labels its “editorial,” written collectively by the editors.) Yes yes, and you know, Iraq has truly never had elections. These first were admittedly imperfect: Sunni underrepresentation, the threat of violence. Still, they were at least a relative success, and hopefully Iraqis can look forward to much less imperfect elections next December. Right, moving on . . .

Libération is a bit better in analyzing what author Jean-Pierre Perrin terms in his piece’s title The Lessons of a Confessionalized Election.

OK, Iraqis showed remarkable courage yesterday in braving the violence to produce what looks like around a 60% turn-out at the polls. But take a closer look at what informal, “exit poll”-type inquiries seem to reveal about who they voted for: Shi’ites for Shi’ites; Kurds for Kurds; and Sunnis for Sunnis, when Sunnis voted at all. Unfortunately, the election was more-or-less set up to encourage this sort of voting behavior, in the way the grand electoral alliances that contested it were formed behind religious/national identities (even with the occasional secular or other-religion faction thrown in to give the appearance of inclusiveness). These included most especially the Shi’ite flagship List 169, fronted by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, named by Perrin as head of Shi’ite militia, and blessed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. And this factionalism goes even further back to American decisions to form the Governing Council in July, 2003, out of national quotas: thirteen seats for the Shi’ites, five each for the Sunnis and the Kurds (and two for others), a composition which was carried over into the make-up of the Provisional Government that “took power” at the end of last June.

Perrin hints that many aggressive attitude still lurk behind what was yesterday’s mostly peaceable electoral behavior, mostly derived from long memories of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Saddam repressed the Shi’ites, including wiping out many thousands after their ill-fated revolt in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, and he repressed, gassed, and tried to exterminate totally the nationhood of the Kurds. Saddam may be no more of a threat to anyone, languishing in prison outside the country, but in the eyes of Iraqis – Shi’ites, Kurds, and yes, the Sunnis themselves – he is identified with Sunni interests. Not that Sunnis will necessarily take to violence – the limited impact violence had on the election also showed the isolation of the violent rejectionists – but the potential for settling old scores is great.


Finally, the Washington correspondent for the conservative daily Le Figaro, Philippe Gélie, takes a crack at analyzing the Iraqi elections from the American perspective, in Bush Has Won His Electoral Bet. “This is the second election in three months that George W. Bush has won,” is the way he starts his piece, and perhaps the Iraqi poll was rather the more risky one. It’s certainly clear that Bush didn’t know what to expect; the tell-tale clue Gélie gives here is that the President for once actually refrained from taking the weekend off at Camp David to stay at the White House and receive the latest CIA briefings on Saturday (from the new Agency head, Porter Goss, himself) and monitor events in Iraq on Sunday.

But things seemed to turn out well, and Bush was quick to note that in statements he made to the press, even as the new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took up the “worry cop” role to Bush’s “good cop,” reminding us that “this election is not perfect,” and “many difficulties still await us.” Naturally, Bush can expect resulting political gains in proportion to the risk he took that the elections would turn out to be a bloody mess. The operative, if not explicitly-stated phrase here is “I told you so”: to the American people, of whom 52% now doubt that involvement in Iraq has been worth the human and financial cost, and more and more of whose Congressional representatives (Senator Kennedy being the latest) have started calling for troop withdrawal; and to the doubting Europeans, whom Bush gets to visit in a few weeks’ time in a “voyage of reconciliation.” Gélie cites here a remark from the editors of the Washington Post to the effect that those who had reduced the situation in Iraq to occupation-versus-resistance are now going to have to explain how the election fits into that picture.

What’s more, even as virtually every electoral slate on the ballot promised to demand a Coalition troop withdrawal, recently most have had a rethink about how handy the troops would be to still have around, for sheer security’s sake against those violent elements which did their best to assassinate candidates and bomb polling-places and which would presumably transfer their deadly attentions to fresh office-holders. So that, even though Bush recently told the New York Times that American troops would depart if asked, it seems less likely that anything of that sort will actually happen.

The last straw would have to be if it turns out that the electoral slate headed by hand-picked current Iraqi prime minster Iyad Allawi comes out on top to dominate the new government. Then France, Germany, and all the others (including, I suppose, the Democrats) would have to wonder about the utility of opposing a political actor so clearly kissed by Good Fortune.

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