Britons, why can’t you be more like Iraqis?
Political observers are cynically celebrating the Iraqi elections as a welcome contrast to dumb apathy here at home.
As Brendan O’Neill observed at the time, the Iraqi elections of 2005 – the first elections since the US and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – prompted a rather schizophrenic reaction on the part of the Coalition of the Willing. On one hand, President George W Bush busily urged ‘coalition partners’ to take ‘pride in our role in making this great day possible’; on the other, numerous commentators and analysts worried that the election, far from being ‘a great day’, was merely the opening salvo in an approaching Shia-Sunni civil war or ‘the birth of a nuke-hungry Islamic state’.
This time, however, as Iraq went to the polls at the weekend for only the second time since 2003, the reaction has been far less angst-ridden. Nothing, it seems – not the mortar attacks, not the rockets and bombs, not the loss of nearly 40 lives – can quell some Western observers’ enthusiasm for this latest round of democracy. ‘By any measure, this was an important milestone in Iraqi history’, declared US President Barack Obama, before talking of his ‘respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote’.
UK foreign secretary David Miliband was equally enthusiastic about Iraq’s democratic verve: ‘[The Iraq] elections follow a vibrant election campaign and underscore the significant democratic progress across the country.’ Even EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a woman whose ascent to the peaks of EU bureaucracy has rested on avoiding anything resembling democracy, was full of praise for the sheer fact of Iraq’s election : ‘[It has] reconfirmed the commitment of the Iraqi people to a democratic country which deserves respect from all.’
The right of the people of Iraq to elect their own government is certainly something to be defended. And that is what these elections ought to be all about: the attempt on the part of the Iraqi people to take hold of their lives, to reassert some measure of sovereignty over their affairs.
Unfortunately, as these elections demonstrate, there are still considerable limits to democracy in post-war Iraq. For a start there’s the sheer number of candidates – around 6,200 – for 325 parliamentary seats. Representing something in the region of 90 different factions, the proliferating candidature is an indication less of electoral vibrancy than of the fragmented state of society in post-war Iraq. Little wonder that of the three main parties – the current prime minister Nouri Maliki’s State of Law Coalition; the mainly Shia Iraqi National Alliance; and the consistently anti-sectarian Iraqi National Movement – none is expected to get more than a third of the vote. A popular movement, a groundswell of solidarity, one that might manifest itself in a popular government, is still to be found.
The legacy of the coalition invasion is difficult to ignore here. As we have pointed out many times on spiked, the US and British effort to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s despotic Ba’athist regime did not liberate Iraqi civil society; it left it rudderless (see Why haven’t they learned the lesson of Iraq?). For as brutal as Saddam’s reign was, it was nonetheless the central, cohering force of Iraqi society. Without it, and in lieu of having liberated themselves, the Iraqi people were left to fall back upon increasingly particular, often ethnic identities, be it Sunni or Shia.
A further consequence of the power vacuum at the heart of Iraqi society, and one which once again was apparent during the elections, is the extent to which external agents are sucked in, whether American, Saudi or Iranian – hence the rumours of Iranian backing for certain Shia candidates and Saudi support for Sunni ones. And if anyone needed any reminder of America’s continued role in shaping the future of Iraq, over and above the democratic will of the Iraqi people, one only need note the continued presence of nearly 100,000 US troops, not to mention the gun ships looming high above the voting areas.
Yet despite the palpable limitations of the election, it is still being celebrated by many in the UK and the US. This doesn’t just seem to be a last-ditch attempt to legitimise the invasion of 2003 with an all’s-well-that-ends-well coda. There is something more to the celebrations than that. It’s as if this election has a symbolic meaning that goes beyond what it means practically for the people of Iraq. They are not just making the first tentative steps towards some sort of self-government; they are not simply exercising their particular democratic will, irrespective of how inhibited that might be. No, they are seen as reasserting the value of democracy itself, at a time when it is held in low esteem here in the West. A headline in the UK Sunday Times captures the sentiment well: ‘Elections in Iraq galvanise citizens determined to vote for democracy.’ In other words, they aren’t voting for any party in particular – rather, at least as far as we in the West are concerned, they are voting for democracy in general.
It is in the context of a contemporary disillusionment with democracy and mainstream politics that the Iraqi election is being celebrated so widely, where the purple ink-stained index fingers of those who voted become such a powerful and endlessly duplicated image. Indeed, the power of that image derives from its sheer abstraction: it says nothing about which of the 6,200 candidates an individual might have voted for; it says nothing about a particular party; in fact it barely says anything at all about Iraq. What it does symbolise is the mere act of voting itself.
What is really driving the celebration of this Iraqi election is not some commitment on the part of Western elites to other nations’ right to self-determination and sovereignty. Rather, the Iraqi process allows Obama or Miliband to do something that they are unable to do domestically: that is, assert the value of democracy. Devalued in the West by a lack of political contestation, in the context of Iraq, democracy appears as a value once again, something in the name of which people are willing to put their lives on the line. A shabby, moth-eaten fact in the UK – a mere exercise in ‘legitimacy provision’ as Brendan O’Neill called it – in the context of Iraq voting once again becomes a shining ideal.
Looking to Iraq also allows the Western political class to turn its own isolation into the fault of a disinterested electorate. In Iraq, people are willing to risk life and limb to post a ballot. Over here, we can’t be bothered to register on the electoral roll, let alone waddle down to the polling station to vote. Monday’s leader in The Times captured the ease with which praise for the Iraqi elections slips into a denigration of the UK electorate: ‘Consider the courage of the millions of ordinary Iraqis who braved the threat of violence to express their democratic voice. It is humbling to compare our own electoral apathy. While British voters are dissuaded from visiting the polling station by the climax of a soap opera or an objection to the local MP’s expenses claim, Iraqis have risked their lives to play a role in shaping the future of their country. It is the kind of quiet heroism that builds nations. While Britain dwells at the Chilcot Inquiry about the process which led to the war, millions of Iraqis are proving that democracy is all about moving forward.’
Just as American and British leaders’ motivations for invading Iraq back in 2003 drew upon a sense of domestic illegitimacy, so the praise reserved for an election abroad draws upon the devaluation of democracy at home. Our leaders are not, as some of their critics claim, imposing Western-style democracy on Iraq, but are, even more bizarrely, hoping that Western-style democracy can be rehabilitated and remade on the back of this most recent Iraqi election.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
On the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Brendan O’Neill asked why haven’t the US and Britain learnt any lessons? He also called America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq a ‘gesture invasion’. He also explained why death by friendly fire became a big issue in Iraq. David Chandler viewed Britain’s war against the Taliban as theatre. From Singapore to Basra, Frank Furedi looked at British militarism as farce. James Heartfield felt that the road to war was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.