To vote, Iraqis must risk their lives. Their democratic will should be respected

Nobody should doubt that Iraqis are capable of democracy. The question is, will they be allowed to exercise it?
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The Independent Online

Millions of Iraqis will risk their lives this Sunday to go to the polling booths and vote. Here in Britain, half of us couldn't even be bothered to stroll up the road in perfect safety at the 2001 election - so have we reacted with awe and admiration for Iraqis? Not quite. Simon Jenkins, the former editor of The Times, speaks for much of conservative England when he jeers that "Iraqi democracy will merely serve as a transition to Shia theocracy, Iran-style." In this newspaper, Robert Fisk speaks for much of progressive opinion when he discusses "the Arab inability to seize democracy", declaring that "Arabs have confidence only in their tribes."

Millions of Iraqis will risk their lives this Sunday to go to the polling booths and vote. Here in Britain, half of us couldn't even be bothered to stroll up the road in perfect safety at the 2001 election - so have we reacted with awe and admiration for Iraqis? Not quite. Simon Jenkins, the former editor of The Times, speaks for much of conservative England when he jeers that "Iraqi democracy will merely serve as a transition to Shia theocracy, Iran-style." In this newspaper, Robert Fisk speaks for much of progressive opinion when he discusses "the Arab inability to seize democracy", declaring that "Arabs have confidence only in their tribes."

The Iraqis who die voting this week - and some of them will - will not die for nothing. For the first time, every single Iraqi will be free to vote - and 80 per cent of them want to, according to the latest polls. No political parties are banned except the Baath - so anybody and everybody is running for office.

And the idea they will vote for a theocracy has been conclusively proven wrong. The main Shia parties declared this week that there will be no clerics in government - not as prime minister, nor even as minister for paperclips. "There will be no turbans in the government. Everybody agrees on that. Iraqis do not want a theocracy. We want democracy," explained Aadnan Ali. He is the leader of the Dawa Party, and he was speaking on behalf of the entire Shia electoral list.

Nobody should doubt that Iraqis are capable of democracy. The real question is: will they be allowed to exercise it? It is one thing for an election to be held, and another for the popular will to be translated into action. There are two major forces converging on Iraq who seek to destroy meaningful democracy and negate the will of Iraqis: Islamic fundamentalists and market fundamentalists. The first will try to prevent the elections; the second will simply ignore them.

The jihadist "resistance" has made its position clear. Musab al-Zarqawi - blessed by Osama bin Laden as his man in Baghdad - declared this week, "Those who vote are infidels. We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it." He says that the Shia are "the most evil of mankind." The only nation ever governed by such jihadists is Afghanistan - and it may never recover.

But another philosophy - not as bad, but still disastrous and anti-democratic - is being imposed on Iraq right now: market fundamentalism. This is a far more extreme and vicious social system than the capitalism practised in Britain or the US. For over two decades, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been thrusting on poor nations a system where all government restrictions on corporations - universal healthcare, significant levels of taxation and spending, moves to tackle unemployment - are seen as "burdens"and ruthlessly stripped away. This approach has reduced several countries to riots, hunger and even revolution. They have brought disaster to countries as diverse as Russia, Argentina, Thailand and Bolivia.

A deal levered in Paris last month by the US and other countries guaranteed that the elected Iraqi government will not be able to escape this market fundamentalism. The Western governments agreed to cancel 80 per cent of the odious debts Iraq has inherited from Saddam Hussein - on one condition. Iraq's economy must be controlled by the IMF for the next decade.

So the elected Iraqi government will have to battle the Zarqawi jihadists with both hands tied. It will be unable, for example, to do anything about the cause of much of the instability: unemployment. After two years of IMF economic "management", Iraq now has 70 per cent unemployment - just as Argentina and Russia did under IMF rule. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate in economics, warned back in June 2003 that the IMF's plans would have precisely this effect - but he was ignored. In Britain, we would have mass civil unrest and rising fascist movements if we had 70 per cent unemployment.

That's why these two fundamentalisms ravaging Iraq cannot be considered in isolation. Market fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism reinforce one another: jihadists feed on the extreme marketisation of the IMF. Mass unemployment provides a recruiting ground for maniacal death-cults like Zarqawi's.

Yet somewhere - beyond these twinned bankrupt ideologies, and beyond Baathism - are the Iraqi people, eager to express their desire for democracy. How can we ensure they prevail? The pre-emptive sneering at the elections is not the way to do it. If you dismiss the elections, you dismiss 80 per cent of the Iraqi people. No: the better option is to watch the elections closely and lobby to ensure that its results are respected.

Some opponents have argued that voting will legitimise the occupation. Precisely the opposite is the truth. The mainstream Shia parties will almost certainly demand a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq if they win. They know that foreign troops blundering and torturing their way across an unemployed country will only breed more resistance. Only trained Iraqi troops, accountable to an elected government, will ever be able to defeat the Sunni fundamentalists. So if your main aim is to ensure an end to the occupation - a process most Iraqis now want, according to opinion polls - then you should back the elections and the victors.

Of course we cannot trust the Bush administration (or, sadly, the Blair government) to respect the election results, given their anti-democratic behaviour in several parts of the world. I don't believe there will be any rigging of the vote itself, because it would be too blatant and would cause scandals even in the US. Instead, pressure will be brought to bear in the weeks following the election, when the elected parties come together to choose a prime minister. The US will no doubt lobby hard for a candidate friendly to its oil and business interests. This will be the time for protests and jeering, not as Iraqis gaze on posters saying "You vote, you die."

But the withdrawal of coalition troops - at the request of an elected Iraqi government - is only one part of the fight to make sure the democratic will of Iraqis is respected. Physical occupation can end while economic occupation through the IMF continues. Those of us in Britain who want to see real Iraqi democracy must battle to reform the IMF and other anti-democratic international bodies, and for a real, no-conditions cancellation of Iraq's debt.

The Iraqi people are about to risk their lives to show the world how much they want real democracy. It will be a savage trick if, after that, it is still denied to them.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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