The Guardian 26 October, 2005

Iraq referendum shows shifting politics

Sue Webb

Final results of Iraq’s October 15 constitutional referendum were delayed as an election commission re-examined very high yes or no votes in several areas. The constitution will be defeated if two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote "no". However, most observers expect it to win approval in all but two provinces.

A commission member told Reuters that lopsided results were not surprising after months of polarising sectarian violence.

Voter turnout, low in some areas and high in others, overall appeared to be over 60 percent. That compares favourably with the 58 percent turnout in January’s elections. Many observers say it represents a significant shift by Sunni-based groups who boycotted the January voting. The lack of violence on the referendum day, they say, indicates that these groups decided they had to take part in the political process and put pressure on armed groups with which they are associated to desist from violent actions. Despite threats by terrorist groups to kill anyone who voted, significant turnout was reported in places like Fallujah, where virtually no one voted in January.

Some US left commentators dismiss the constitution as worthless or worse. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies called it "a referendum for disaster", "not legitimate" and essentially US-imposed. Similarly, US media refer to "the American-backed political process".

But others say this overstates the US ability to control developments in Iraq, despite its strenuous efforts to produce an outcome that will allow it to entrench itself there. Middle East scholar Juan Cole suggested to the Washington Post that the US increasingly has little influence over politics in Iraq. "The whole thing is out of their hands", he said. "The Bush administration is pretty helpless in Iraq."

Iraqi Communist Party spokesperson Salam Ali said, "If you look at it in a one-sided way, the situation is bleak, and the US will have its way." Such assessments, he believes, are "ignoring the political map of Iraq."

The ICP, like most Iraqi secular, democratic organisations, including the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, strongly criticised major shortcomings of the constitution but called for its adoption as a step toward defeating "the forces of terror" and "moving forward to provide the prerequisites for ending foreign military presence and building a unified federal democratic Iraq."

In calling for its adoption, the ICP said the constitution’s loopholes and problematic wording reflected the current balance of forces in Iraq under "difficult, exceptionally abnormal current conditions." The constitution draft is not a final document, the party emphasised. It allows for substantial changes after a new government is elected in December. The ICP sees the political struggle in the coming months as key to producing a final constitution that solidly enshrines democratic rights and protects the country’s economic and political sovereignty.

"This is a very turbulent period", Ali said. "The struggle over the content and form of the emerging Iraqi state will continue for some time".

The significant thing about the referendum, Ali said, was the marked engagement in the political process, regardless of whether the vote was "yes" or "no".

Two days after the referendum, a "national unity conference" in Baghdad attended by 1000 representatives from a wide range of centrist to left political groups discussed running a unified slate in the December elections. While the conference was initiated by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has his own agenda, the dynamics changed when many other groups got involved, including the ICP, the Arab socialist movement, liberal democratic groups, the two main Kurdish parties, the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party, and Shiite religious groups and clerics who oppose an Islamic state.

The current religious Shiite-dominated government is discredited because of its failure to improve security and living conditions. But the main fear among Iraqis now is an onslaught by religious Islamic groups, Ali said. The feeling is, he said, "unless we stand up as a secular force, things will be doomed".

Despite the Bush administration’s promotion of the referendum and elections, it appears to be concerned that it will be left with no justification for continuing the occupation. Bush aides worry that passage of the constitution is bound to fuel calls for a pathway out of Iraq, David Sanger of The New York Times reported.

A senior Bush strategist told Sanger the White House is "trying to head off what some officials fear could be a broader split in the party over the war". He signalled that Bush would now try to portray the US occupation as vital to "a struggle of ideologies that isn’t going to end with one election, or one constitution, or even a string of elections."

People’s Weekly World, Communist Party USA

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