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September 22, 2004
The Ayatollah Is Not Pleased

The road to Iraqi elections may or may not have hit a snag this evening, as the New York Times reports that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has expressed deep reservations about the new Iraqi electoral system but has given no specific demands or requests for changes:

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the nation's most powerful Shiite leader, is growing increasingly concerned that nationwide elections could be delayed, his aides said, and has even threatened to withdraw his support for the elections unless changes are made to increase the representation of Shiites, according to one Iraqi source close to him. ...

According to people with knowledge of the talks, Ayatollah Sistani is concerned that the nascent democratic process here is falling under the control of a handful of the largest political parties, which cooperated with the American occupation and are comprised largely of exiles. In particular, these sources say, Ayatollah Sistani is worried about discussions now under way among those parties to form a single ticket for the elections, thus limiting the choices of voters and smothering smaller political parties.

Ayatollah Sistani, who earlier this year sent tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets to demand early elections, is said to be worried that a "consensus list" of candidates from the larger political parties would artificially limit the power of the Shiites, who form a majority in the country.

Under an agreement reached among exile groups in the early 1990's, the Shiites were said to make up about 55 percent of the population. Ayatollah Sistani, the sources say, believes the Shiite population has swelled since then and therefore would be underrepresented on any list based on a 55 percent figure.

Ayatollah Sistani also expressed concerns that the Iraqi government, possibly under American pressure, would postpone the elections on the pretext that the anarchical conditions that prevail over parts of the country would make the results illegitimate, the sources said.

While keeping Sistani involved in the process must be a key element in maintaining credibility with Iraqi Shi'a, it's difficult to see what exactly Sistani wants. On one hand, he claims to worry about the Allawi government using the insurgency as a pretext to put off the elections, and in the next breath threatens to withdraw his support if they go on. Having given no demands, it's hard to know what Sistani wants to change.

Indeed, under the European-style proportional election style, where voters cast ballots for "lists" and seats are awarded proportional to the gross vote totals, it would appear that the majority Shi'ite population would score a plurality of seats in their parliament, if not an outright majority. In an American-style federal system of elections, such a result might not be as predictable, given the head start that the existing political parties have.

What makes Sistani most unhappy is that head start. Six political parties have coalesced into the current government, with a strong exile element in the management of each. But how could anyone expect anything else? The Iraqis have no tradition of democracy and lack the organizational ability to quickly form political groups, especially since such ability resulted in a fast and brutal reaction from the Saddam Hussein one-party system. The exiles provided those skills and helped to organize Iraq as quickly as possible in order to head off the insurgency. Their presence also ensured that Iraq actually transitioned to democracy rather than a knee-jerk reaction to propping up another strongman like Saddam.

That impulse is what has probably pushed the leadership of the six parties to offer a single "unity" list for the first election, which Sistani is correct to question. It gives at least the appearance that the interim government intends on making the first Iraqi election nothing more than a referendum on the continuance of the Allaw regime. That result may be tempting, and for the US, it may be the best possible result -- but after fighting to establish democracy for almost two years, presenting Iraqis with a Ba'ath-style single option for the election will provide a letdown.

The US should ask Allawi to rethink this approach. The symbolism of this election is at least as important as the result.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 22, 2004 9:57 PM

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