Iraqi elections: Time for a different sort of support (PCP)

My friend Iain King works for an independent organisation called Post Conflict People, which is “commited to reviving societies suffering from recent or on-going conflicts”. In their latest newsletter, Iain writes about the relevance of outsiders in the Iraqi election process. He argues that they should consider going beyong merely monitoring whether an election is free and fair, towards more hands-on training of the political class itself. As he says, what is the point of a clean election if it only promotes the corrupt. Iain acknowledges that as training would have to be for all, including those you don’t ideologically like, the objective is to encourage a better form of democratic politics.

Iraqi elections: Time for a different sort of support
Iain King (Post Conflict People)

February 2009

There’s something really rather brilliant about the way candidates for the current Governorate elections in Iraq are enthused.

As polling day, 31st January, approached, they were refreshingly eager to win their seat in one of the eighteen provincial councils, forums which will debate things like rubbish collection, road maintenance and local clinics.

When was the last time you met people genuinely fired up about a local council election in your country?

The effervescence is sincere: some 440 seats are up for grabs across the whole of Iraq, contested by no fewer than 14,000 named individuals.

Many of these brim over with passion when they explain to you their views on how local farmers are getting a raw deal, or how local schools have not been repaired as promised, or how the local community is missing out on its due share of oil wealth.

One female candidate in her mid-thirties was particularly impressive: she explained how, with a PhD and three children, she was both capable and keen to do a much better job than the incumbents, with whom she had little faith.

Entirely new to politics, she could detail the problems facing the local community, elucidate why they hadn’t been fixed yet with great conviction and set out what needed to be done.

Another man was also compelling — a rather jolly figure with self-confidence as broad as his girth who introduced himself as ‘the next Governor of Basra’, a claim which he acknowledged, when pressed, was based only in its potential to be self-fulfilling.

A third candidate was standing on a theological ticket, but sincere in his commitment to solving very earthly problems. They had all come to a protected base in the safer Kurdish region of this turbulent country to be trained by practitioners of political campaigns in the West.

We told them what we knew about how to mould a message and run a campaign, how to target voters, tackle antagonistic rivals and feed ambivalent local media.

We offered them anecdotes from our own experiences, tales of vote seeking in Belfast and Baltimore, but it didn’t really compare with their own stories –- of intimidation, personal tragedy and desperate improvisations in the face of the most brutal challenges you could imagine. Despite the surge and the much more benign security situation which has come to Iraq, the country is still dangerous.

December 2008 was the quietest month in three years, but it still saw 316 Iraqis killed; official figures recorded 6772 deaths in the whole of last year.

This is not the place to be knocking on doors, meeting strangers in crowded places and making overt declarations about any controversial viewpoints you may hold.

Yet that is exactly what these people have been doing.

They wear T-shirts broadcasting their affiliation, vie to display garish posters and enlist their children in handing out campaign literature.

Apart from virulent text-messaging, election campaigning in Iraq is up-close and personal, partly because it has to be –- email and YouTube broadcasts wouldn’t gain traction here.

Few candidates will actually get elected, and they don’t seem to be motivated by opportunities for personal enrichment which may eventually arise, but they campaign anyway.

Genuine public spirit is the only reasonable interpretation, and admiration is the only fair response – tinged with sympathy, perhaps, for candidates who are deluding themselves about their chances of getting elected or of delivering large-scale changes when they are in office.

The experiences of Iraq’s provincial council candidates are not isolated –- political hopefuls in most post-conflict and transitional have to scrape together whatever they can from family coffers and struggle against dispiriting odds, including, sometimes, violence.

Yet most Western assistance strategies have tended to concentrate on election monitoring, often devoting up to 1% of a developing country’s GDP not to direct aid, but to determine whether a the vote can be deemed free and fair.

It may deter a certain sort of election malpractice, but when the whole campaigning process is riddled with flaws, the enthusiastic campaigners of Iraq and elsewhere deserve a more holistic view of democracy than the presence or absence of ballot-stuffing. There is another serious argument for rebalancing how we spend our electoral assistance money, and that is the battle against corruption.

Western governments spend billions each year in this effort, much of it directed towards post-conflict and transitional countries, like Iraq, where graft is endemic.

Yet, however much is spent training civil servants, establishing codes of conduct and implanting good governance, the political class is, almost without exception, ignored.

These are the people without secure employment and desperate for cash, for themselves and for their campaigns, who, when the system starts to work, will actually have most executive authority.

Anybody who wants to buy a political decision or preferential treatment can see where the governance structure is most permeable to liquid assets. Of course, refocusing governance assistance towards the political class – more training, on-going mentoring and perhaps a stipend for legitimate campaign expenditure – would be controversial.

Some of the funds would go to candidates we dislike, politicians may develop some perverse incentives, and the election-monitoring industry would feel the pinch.

But then, it depends on the sort of democracy we want to encourage in these places.

A pristine electoral process is irrelevant when the only names on the ballot paper are crooks beholden to money-brokers, perhaps with criminal links, who have only their own interests at heart.

Fortunately, the stakes in these provincial governorate elections are sufficiently low for corruption to be absent from most minds.

The candidates giving out stickers and shaking hands in the bazaars of Diyala, Dahuk and Dhi Qar are mostly motivated by the will to improve their local communities, perhaps enhanced by the buzz of the campaign and the glow of human interaction.

Whatever you thought about the Iraq war, you can’t help but wish them good luck, and recognise that they need all the luck they can muster.

Iain King is a Founder of Post Conflict People.

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