Iraq is a "totalitarian state", and that's official, according to the logic of Condoleezza Rice this week. Maybe it was because she was in carefree Paris. Maybe it was because she was having breakfast with a bunch of French intellectuals. But the new US secretary of state let down her political hair and stunned the company with the looseness of her terminology.
She was talking about Iran, the latest Bush administration target for regime change. She used to call Iran's Islamic republic "authoritarian", she told them, but since the parliamentary polls last spring, in which candidates at one end of the spectrum were off the ballot, Iran had moved to being "totalitarian".
She did not draw any comparison with Iraq, of course, let alone with Saudi Arabia (which embarked on a men-only, no-parties election yesterday). But the similarities are obvious. If Iran qualifies as totalitarian because it holds an election in which voters had only a limited choice, then the same is true of Iraq, where parties and movements which want an immediate end to the occupation were off the ballot.
Queues of voters are not the defining issue for a decent election. In Iran last year they were so long that in many places polling stations had to stay open an extra four hours to give everyone a chance. Nor is turnout the decisive marker. Voters take part for a host of reasons.
El Salvador held an election in 1982, which Reagan administration officials such as John Negroponte, its then ambassador in nearby Honduras and now Washington's man in Iraq, touted as a glorious day for freedom because guerrillas attacked a handful of polling stations and people carried on voting regardless. On the lips of establishment TV anchors the generalization for the whole poll was "they defied the terrorists", as though violence was pervasive.
A different picture emerged in a small town I visited north of the capital, San Salvador, as the polls were about to close. The queue broke down as frantic would-be voters stormed the desk to try to get their ID cards stamped. They were not specially interested in any of the parties on offer, they told reporters. The government had made a big issue of getting a high turnout, and they were terrified the army would brutalize them if they could not prove they had voted.
Every election is specific. Long before the Iraqi poll it was clear that Kurds and Shias would vote in large numbers. Their areas have not seen much violence, and both groups saw the poll as a chance to reflect their collective strength in the constitution-writing process. So there should have been no surprise that queues built up.
Fear of not voting was also a factor, though much less than in El Salvador in 1982. "I tore up my ballot paper," said a young woman who works for a US government-funded NGO in Basra. "But I wanted my finger inked, in case the religious parties check on people in the street."
Others abstained for different reasons. "Many of my friends will not be voting," Sayed Mudhaffer, a Basra official of the Writers' Union, told me. "Some don't know which list to vote for, because there hasn't been enough campaigning on what they stand for. Some think that because the United Nations isn't supervising, it won't be fair or honest."
His last point is well taken. As the old saying has it, what matters is not who votes, but who counts. Because of security fears there were even fewer international monitors in Iraq than in Afghanistan last year, and most stayed only a few minutes in the polling places they visited. They saw very little.
Why is it taking as much as two weeks to come up with a result in Iraq? In the polling station, where I watched the count, when the doors closed last week, they tabulated all 1,500 votes in just over three hours. Everything seemed above board and the results were given out "on background". But they had to be sent to Baghdad for "checking" before a public declaration.
In many other polling stations there were no observers, not even Iraqi ones. In Basra, even the representative of prime minister Iyad Allawi's party complained of the scope for fraud. Waleed Ketan said he had only been given credentials for 134 monitors while there were 386 polling stations in the province. His point was given substance by the head of the Basra election commission (who is widely accused of links to one of the main religious parties). Asked on three different occasions how many monitors he had accredited, he answered variously 4,000, 6,000, and 8,000.
The Iraqi election was, in fact, both normal and abnormal. In Basra, many Shias treated it as historic, saying it marked the real end to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Embarrassed and humiliated that foreigners rather than Iraqis had toppled him, they seemed proud that the election was an Iraqi show. I heard no one thanking Bush and Blair.
I also heard no one describe his or her vote as defiance of terrorism, let alone the insurgency. Blair called it "a blow right to the heart of global terrorism". Maybe a voter in Baghdad might have said such a thing. It was not the mood in the Shia south.
Most gave mundane reasons for their vote: patriotism, a sense of duty, concern over joblessness and power cuts, and the hope that the election might be a first step towards change. There was also a strong underlying feeling that having an elected government could hasten the restoration of sovereignty and an end to the occupation. This was certainly the view of those supporters of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who decided that voting mattered more than the risk of legitimizing the occupation.
Although some Shias say they supported the US offensive against the largely Sunni city of Falluja, and explain their feelings in terms of revenge for Ba'athist (seen as Sunni) oppression, it is more common to find Shias who deplore the talk of Sunni versus Shia conflict. They blame the foreign occupiers for stressing sectarian identity, an issue which, they say, has never been a matter of significance for ordinary Iraqis.
So this was certainly not an election which justified the invasion after the event or gave the occupation some kind of popularity among Shias. Nor did it reduce the pressure for a withdrawal of foreign troops and the dismantling of the bases the US is building. The main Sunni parties boycotted the poll because the Americans refused to give a timetable. The Shia parties will have to explain to their voters what they are doing to get one.
As Iraqis know, the main killers in Iraq are not the insurgents but the Americans. The Iraqi ministry of health's latest statistics show that in the last six months of 2004 they killed almost three times as many people as the insurgents did. On this issue, just as on the elections, TV images usually simplify, if not falsify, the story.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.