Middle East — 21 May 2005

The US-staged Iraqi election on January 30th 2005 was heralded a success with some 8.5 million or 58% of eligible voters casting votes to elect the 275 member Transitional National Assembly. It was widely reported that, despite the insurgency, Shiites and Kurds turned out in great numbers to vote and the election returned a resounding victory to Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Party, the Shiite Alliance, which won 48.1% of the vote, followed by the Kurdish Alliance (25.7%) and Ayad Allawi’s grouping, the Iraqi List Party (13.8%). The US was clearly jubilant about the success of the plebiscite, which was depicted as a watershed event and a triumph for the establishment of democracy in Iraq. However, amid the self-congratulation over the apparent success of the elections, the Sunni electoral boycott in cities such as Ramadi, Mosul, and Fallujah was ignored. The comprehensiveness of the election boycott indicates that the insurgents now command the loyalty of the majority of the Sunnis, who represent some 40% of the population.i

Calls for a boycott were also issued by Iraqi religious, political, and civil society leaders from across the political spectrum, including progressive human rights and women’s organisations. The most widespread rationale for the boycott was that conditions for ‘free and fair’ elections had not been met. The lack of mass participation in the elections underpinned by the declining security situation raises serious questions as to the degree of success that any government is likely to have when faced with such active opposition to the imposition of Western-style democracy. It also raises questions regarding the democratic legitimacy of the elections under such circumstances and whether people can achieve self-determination through plebiscites whilst under hostile military occupation. But perhaps a more significant issue is whether democracy as a political concept is always compatible with the beliefs and convictions of the intended recipients. These are important questions because they have profound consequences for the self-determination of Muslims under international law.

Self-determination under occupation

Self–determination is a principle of international law, which in its contemporary form means the right of peoples to freely determine their own political and economic destiny, the right to determine their own political constitution and the right to establish a sovereign representative government. It is a powerful notion that developed as a natural corollary to nationalism in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries,ii and it eventually emerged as a principle of international law in 1945, at which point the principle of ‘equal rights and self-determination of peoples’ found in articles 1 and 55 of the UN Charter was understood as self-determination of nations and equal rights of states.iii Since then, its applicability has been broadened to the right of peoples and not states to choose their political destiny. However, self-determination through popular elections cannot take place when a state has partial sovereignty and is subject to military occupation. The international community affirmed this in the case of at least five countries, namely, Namibia, the West Bank and Gaza, Cambodia, and Western Sahara, concluding that withdrawal of foreign forces was a condition precedent to self-determination. Notwithstanding this, the U.S refused to delay the elections so that all parts of Iraq could vote, as a result of which the major Sunni parties announced their decision to boycott shortly before the election. Indeed, the Carter Center, a US-based international election-monitoring agency, condemned the January election as illegitimate and declined to participate in Iraq because the international criteria had not been met. It was not convinced that voters had a free and secure environment, or that there was a freely chosen and independent election commission, or that voters were able to vote without fear or intimidation.

The security situation was in fact so dire in Iraq that many voters abstained from the political process, candidates were unable to campaign publicly and voters were not able to familiarise themselves with the names and manifestos of the 7,000 candidates. On the one hand, pluralism was encouraged, but on the other, only political groups that were supportive of the occupation were included in the political process, while those who held a different view were barred from participation. The entire process escaped the scrutiny of international election monitoring agencies, which deemed it too dangerous to participate in the precarious security climate. Although international journalists were allowed to observe, they were restricted to five polling stations in Baghdad, four of which were in Shi’i districts, where high turnouts were anticipated.

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