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Editorial

The Power of Elections

Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A14

DESPITE LIMITED competition and a less than overwhelming turnout, the Palestinian presidential elections on Sunday must be judged a success: They gave a mandate to a new president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has opposed the use of violence against Israel and promised to reform Palestinian government. The prospect of democratic change in the Middle East, as well as an Israeli-Palestinian peace, has gotten a badly needed boost. Now the question is whether Iraq can similarly gain from the elections it has scheduled in less than three weeks, or whether those Iraqis and Americans who argue that a vote will do more harm than good and should be postponed are right. The question is not an easy one, but the arguments for sticking to a Jan. 30 election date are stronger.

Opponents of the election schedule frequently misstate the nature of the terrible violence that afflicts Baghdad and Sunni-populated areas of Iraq. The central conflict no longer lies, if it ever did, between a U.S.-led occupation force and a resentful population; nor is it mainly a battle between those who favor construction of a Western-style democracy and foreign and domestic Islamic extremists. The larger trouble is the resistance of much of Iraq's former elite to a political system that would have the effect of empowering the majority Shiite community and reducing the Arab Sunnis to an influence commensurate with the 20 percent of the population they probably represent.

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Saddam Hussein's former Baathist cadres desperately fight that prospect and dream of restoring the old regime. But even nonviolent Sunni leaders seek to negotiate greater power for their community before any vote is held. In this they are supported by neighboring Sunni governments, which feel threatened by both Shiite rule and electoral democracy. Although they may not abet the insurgency, the Sunni proponents of postponement effectively use it as leverage on the United States and the emerging Shiite leadership. Their proposals are often disingenuous. For example, the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars has offered to support elections provided U.S. troops withdraw from the country. This might please most Iraqis, but its main effect would be to strip the Shiite community of its main defense against a continuing Sunni insurgency.

Stability in Iraq will require the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities to come to terms on a new national constitution. Shiite leaders will surely seek that accord even if Sunnis are underrepresented in the national assembly that the elections will create. Once the constitution is hammered out, it must be ratified by Sunnis as well as Shiites, and there will be another set of elections for a permanent government. The main effect of this initial vote will be to empower Shiite leaders and give Iraq for the first time a government supported by a majority of the country. If the balloting is postponed, Sunni insurgents will be the ones empowered, and violence will trump democracy as a means of influence. Seen in that light, it's not hard to conclude that the elections must go ahead.


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