January Election for Iraqis and Palestinians? — You bet | Peace in the Middle East? — Not yet

A line in The Beatles’ hit song Getting Better says, “you have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time,” because… “it can’t get much worse.”

Can a people under military occupation have a truly “free” election? Who will the elected politicians represent?

Would the occupying power allow nationalists to win the elections, allowing them to challenge the occupation itself and even bring it to an end? In Iraq and Gaza and the West Bank, will Americans and Israelis protest the election results if the “wrong” candidates win?

Both Iraqis and Palestinians will go to the polls next month.

Many key election issues for both peoples have much in common with those of citizens anywhere else in the world.
They care about more and better jobs, decent living standards, access to health care, a democratic system in more than name only, access to clean water and clean air, poverty reduction, education, respect for human rights, etc.

But there is something else on the agenda as well. Both peoples deeply desire the end of illegal occupations of their respective land and country.

During election campaigns under circumstances of occupation, the "wrong" candidates can be branded as terrorists and be summarily arrested and detained without charge, as the Israeli army did during December’s Palestinian municipal elections. Four Palestinian municipal candidates, all teachers or civil servants, were arrested just before the election date and described as "fugitives and wanted persons."

Both Iraqis and Palestinians are looking forward to electing leaders able to negotiate the peaceful withdrawal of American and Israeli military forces, while at the same time injecting new employment and economic initiatives into their stagnating economies. It is not rocket science — liberty and democracy work best on a full stomach.

In fact, failure to end the occupation of both places will test their peoples’ patience to the limit and inevitably incite more bloodshed, more death, more destruction and more misery. And post-election economic failure brought on by incompetent or corrupt governments will be equally disastrous.

The Palestinian presidential elections are scheduled for January 9 and Israel has promised not to interfere in the electoral process. But can this assurance be trusted? Back in November, Israeli soldiers at one of the hundreds of roadblocks in the West Bank harassed, beat, handcuffed and briefly detained Bassam Salhi, a declared presidential candidate. And more recently another candidate, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, had a similar encounter with Israeli soldiers who prevented him from traveling in the West Bank and to the Gaza Strip.

"As you see, they are preventing us from moving around," Barghouti said. "How can we conduct an effective and orderly election campaign if we are unable to meet supporters and talk to the electorate?"

Both Salhi and Barghouti are not on Israel’s "good list."

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that international election observers, including Canadians, will be able to do much to force Israel to alter its practices and to act on so-far unfulfilled promises to facilitate the electoral process. Being under occupation simply does not allow for the freedom of movement essential for effective and comprehensive campaigning.

"America and the world are lecturing us day and night on democracy, but when we seek to practice it, the Israeli army comes to arrest the candidates and raid their homes at dawn," said Hani Abu Sharkh, spokesman for the Islamic bloc. "I think America is hypocritical about democracy in the Muslim world. If this was not the case, then it would order Israel to withdraw its troops from our towns and villages to enable us to have authentic elections. Obviously, military occupation and democracy can’t go hand in hand."

And should Iraqi elections, due to take place on January 30, actually materialize, they could degenerate into an even more dangerous mess.

Those elections will determine membership in the country’s 275-seat National Assembly, charged with drafting a new Iraqi constitution and electing an interim president. The elected government is scheduled to take office sometime in December 2005 — nearly a year from now.

On the ground in Iraq, the security situation is not getting any better, no thanks to the brutal American anti-insurgency campaign in Fallujah.

A significant number of key political parties and interest groups have said they will boycott the upcoming Iraq vote, favouring instead the postponing of elections until the security situation improves and after a UN peacekeeping force replaces the unpopular Americans.

Iraqis opposing the January election formed the Election Boycott Front (EBF). One of their leaders is the prominent Iraqi politician and ex-information minister, Salah Omar Al-Ali, who has painted a grim picture amid growing violence and the prospect of full-blown civil war.

The EBF issued a recent statement signed by 69 independent political groups, religious authorities, tribal leaders and independent public figures — including Dr. Mothana Hareth Al-Dari, spokesman for the influential Sunni Muslim Clerics’ Association (MCA), with whom I met in Cairo last May.

Rushing to hold elections in the current climate, says the group, is an attempt "to legitimize the occupation." Also among the signatories are representatives of Sunni, Shia, Christian, Turkman, Kurdish, Islamic and secular groups.

The EBF statement advocates an "absolute boycott" of the planned elections, citing "vicious" attacks by the occupation forces on Iraqi cities such as Najaf, Karbalaa, Samara, Mosul, Baghdad and "especially the genocidal war launched on Fallujah," as major reasons not to participate. "The undersigned realize that…the results of the vote have already been decided in favor of those supporting the occupation."

Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, popular among young Iraqis, has tied his own participation in any planned elections to the end of the occupation. But a Shia electoral list was announced in December, with the blessing of Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Significantly, it did not include supporters of Al-Sadr.

The 275-candidate list is expected to dominate the next Iraqi parliament and this has created a false impression that the boycott is essentially Sunni-led, while Iraq’s Shia are supposedly happy with the occupation-controlled election.

It is difficult to assess the extent of an elections boycott in a country which for decades was subject to one-party rule. The EBF is already accusing the interim government of rigging the January election by granting one million Iranians residing in the country automatic Iraqi citizenship.

The EBF is also charging that the price of opposing the upcoming elections has been fatal. Three members of the Muslim Clerics’ Association have been recently assassinated. “There are serious attempts to silence and intimidate politicians and, in some cases, liquidate them," MCA spokesman Dr. Al-Dari said..

What is clear is that those who are boycotting the elections represent major political currents in Iraq, including the nationalist and Islamic trends. How this will affect the results of the Iraq elections — if indeed they are held at all — is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps it is just a fairy tale to believe, along with The Beatles, “you have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time” because “it can’t get much worse.” Unfortunately, it could get worse — a lot worse.