For those who define heroism as exceptional deeds by individuals against heavy odds, a suggestion that it could also be found in the mere act of abiding by a nation at a dicey moment in its history might appear frivolous, to say the least.
And, yet, this is precisely the case with the Iraqi nation which has, once again, proved its heroism by turning out en masse to vote in its first free elections for a full-term parliament. For those in Western democracies who regard the act of voting as either a ritual, performed every four or five years, or a tedious undertaking best avoided with a day out fishing, last week”s election in Iraq might appear as no big deal. After all what is heroic in turning up to mark a ballot paper and then push it into a ballot box?
Nevertheless, what Iraq has achieved is a genuine act of heroism.
It is not only because millions of voters ignored death threats issued by terrorists and insurgents. That they had already done on two previous occasions in last January”s general election and last October”s constitutional referendum. What made this election more exceptional was the collective wisdom shown by the peoples of Iraq in all their diversity.
To start with the Shi”ite clergy, including Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, stayed on the sidelines, thus signaling support for a genuine people-based system of government. Next, the various political groups, although forming alliances largely based on ethnic and religious grounds, refrained from sectarian themes and slogans. This meant that although they ad come together because of common ethnic and/or religious affinities, they meant to put their unity in the service of a broader national unity. Extremists efforts to inject a dose of sectarianism into the campaign failed.
So powerful is the message of Iraq that many who opposed the war or are trying to sabotage the building of a new Iraqi political system have had to eat humble pie.
A New York Times editorial describes the Iraqi election as "a glorious success" and "an overwhelming and heartening triumph." A website run by supporters of Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda man in Iraq, warns that what happened in last week”s election may leave the terrorists with "no excuse to pursue the Jihad." For all that Iraq is not yet out of the woods.
One good election does not a democracy make. In fact, democracy, like any living organism, needs to be tended on a daily basis and constantly defended against its many enemies.
Iraq”s new political leadership needs to tap into larger resources of tact and patience than required under normal circumstances. It now looks as if a majority of Iraqis have accepted the first crucial rule of the game: that power emanates from the will of the people as expressed through free and fair elections. This is a huge achievement, one that other nations took several generations to secure.
But this complex and beautiful game has other rules.
One is the acceptance of the results of the election by the losers. The more advanced a democracy the more sincere and gracious that acceptance. But in Iraq today even a grudging acceptance would do. What matters now is whether or not the Arab Sunnis and the secularist camp led by former Premier Iyad Allawi will be prepared to accept that they could not have won a majority if only because most Iraqis voted on the basis of ethnic and/or sectarian loyalties.
The fact that the Iraqi election took place under the rules of proportional representation should make that acceptance easier if only because all groups could be said to have lost, the only winner being the Iraqi nation.
It is clear that the Shi”ite alliance will not secure enough seats to form a government alone, and even if it did, it would still be wiser to seek a coalition with other parties.
Because no group has enough seats to form a government alone, the Iraqis face weeks, if not months, of horse-trading to form a new government. The configuration of forces is such that a variety of coalitions could be imagined.
It is in everyone”s interest to let the Iraqis do their own horse-trading, which means the US should trust the good sense of the Iraqi leaders and refuse to play kingmaker.
Some in Baghdad are already talking of a grand coalition in which all parties represented in the parliament will also have a presence in the Cabinet.
This might be an easy way to achieve consensus but would be harmful for the longer-term prospects of Iraqi democracy. It is important that the parliament should counter-balance the government rather than be its political hinterland. It is even more important to have a loyal opposition within the parliament- loyal in the sense of accepting and honouring the Constitution without being complacent in holding the government accountable.
Who will form the opposition is perhaps even more important than who will dominate the next Iraqi government. If the opposition is limited to Arab Sunnis only chances of defeating the insurgency and its terrorist allies would diminish.
That, in turn, would have a negative impact on Iraq”s overall political development as security matters would have to remain high on the agenda of the future government. If, on the other hand, the Shi”ite alliance is forced into playing opposition we would be in an odd situation because the community majority would feel itself excluded from power. Asking the Kurds to play opposition against an Arab Sunni-Shi”ite coalition wouldn”t do either if only because it would further encourage Kurdish secessionism. The only group capable of playing the role of loyal opposition without undermining the prospects of democracy in Iraq is the one led by Allawi which won votes throughout the country and across ethnic and sectarian divides.
The ideal configuration, therefore, would be a Shi”ite-Sunni-Kurdish grand coalition in government and with Allawi and a group of some 30 independents likely to win seats providing the loyal opposition. This ideal configuration, however, is not easy to achieve, and Iraq may well be heading for weeks if not months of political turmoil. What is important, however, is that the struggle for power in Iraq should take place within a democratic framework.
It is surprising that most Western democracies have greeted the Iraqi election either with a deafening silence or with a few platitudinous mutterings. The reticence of France, Belgium and Spain, still secretly hoping that Iraq will fail so that they are proved right in their anti-American campaign, may be understandable, though not justifiable. But a warmer welcome was expected from Germany, now free from Gerhard Schroeder”s opportunistic anti-Americanism, and, certainly from Britain, Italy, Australia, Japan, and Denmark, among others, who have played crucial roles in helping Iraq on its way to building a new political system.
In the meantime, let us hope to that Iraq”s political leaders will prove as heroic and as wise as their electorate, and that Iraq”s allies will stay the course.