Quiet Election Day; Sunnis Show Up

The Sunnis come out in droves to surprise everyone.

Woman voter

A woman exits the Ayoon al-Maha Nursery School, in the Jadhriyah neighborhood, a mostly Shi’ite area in Baghdad. Copyright 2005 Yassar al-Ali

BAGHDAD — Well, well… The Sunnis might surprise us all on this one.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, both of you, that means you know (“from other sources”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1118269,00.html) there was a referendum yesterday. With none of the giddiness of January, but all the security, Iraqis voted for the second time this year, this time on the proposed permanent Iraqi constitution. It’s a document supporters say will secure the country’s future and unite the country while opponents say it will lead to dissolution and civil war.
Considering the sectarian divisions on display between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunnis, it’s unsurprising issues of religion and national identity are what decides people’s vote. What is surprising is the numbers that Sunnis showed up.
Shi’ites overwhelmingly support the document, in part because of the instructions from the powerful Shi’ite clerical body, the _merjariya_, led by the venerated Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He called for a “yes” vote on the document. Most Sunnis, however, say it’s a terrible constitution and bad for Iraq.
“We are following our supreme _merja_, Sistani,” said Jafar al-Khazali, a 29-year-old day laborer as his daughter, Sou’ad, clung to his leg. “I will not lose my rights again like before.”
“This is bad for the Iraqis,” counters Saleh Mutlaq, an influential member of the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group which includes many former Ba’athists. “This constitution will break up this country.”
Under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, Shi’ites were often discriminated against and oppressed while Sistani was under virtual house arrest. The constitution, written largely by Shi’ites installed in power by the United States, would securing their place as the country’s new rulers. With 60 percent of the population, demographics translate into political destiny.
Further cementing their power, the document’s federalism provisions, bitterly opposed by most Sunni politicians, would allow the formation of powerful regions — mini-states, in effect — with control of Iraq’s future oil wealth and the ability to ignore the central government in Baghdad. Sunnis say this will lead to the breakup of Iraq, with oil-rich regions in the Kurdish north and Shi’ite south and a barren desert for Sunnis in the middle.
But back to yesterday. The giddy enthusiasm of the January elections, in which Iraqis voted in relatively free elections for the first time in their history, was absent, and instead an air of resignation was felt. Rather than hang around the polling places gossiping, as they did nine months ago, Iraqis came, voted and left quickly. There were fewer children out with parents, too, indicating a heightened sense of the dangers present on the empty streets.
Baghdad was relatively calm, despite violence in the last 19 days that killed more than 450 Iraqi civilians. Saturday’s quiet could indicate that the draconian security measures that banned almost all vehicular traffic, international travel and movement between provinces were effective in curbing insurgents’ attacks. Or it might mean the insurgents just decided to keep their powder dry until a more politically opportune time. The night before the vote, insurgents sabotaged an electrical tower, plunging the city and northern towns into darkness, and there were reports of gun battles between insurgents and combined U.S. and Iraqi troops in Ramadi. In Abu Ghraib, police sources said insurgents had attacked a polling place, killed the supervisor and made off with five ballot boxes. Despite all that, the violence was much less intense than on Jan. 30, which saw more than 100 attacks, including suicide bombings, killing at least 40 people.
Because of the security restrictions,I was unable to visit Sunni neighborhoods where attitudes toward the constitution differed. Residents of these areas, reached by phone said there were many people in the streets all ready to vote against the constitution, but this could not be independently confirmed. I was able to walk to nearby polling areas with no problem, but they’re all Shi’ite neighborhoods, and the response is pretty much what you’d expect: They love the constitution, love Sistani and believe all Iraqis are brothers and love one another.
Excuse me while I sing “Kumbaya” with my Iraqi hippie brothers.
The Sunnis I reached, however, say — again — exactly what you’d expect them to: This is terrible and bad for Iraq. Oh, and by the way, screw the Iranians, er, Shi’ites. Brothers, our collective asses.
Thafir Aga, 38, a taxi driver and Sunni in the Sadiya neighborhood, said he voted against the constitution because “This constitution is dividing Iraq,” he said. “The government is only Kurdish and Iranian, it is not a Sunni or Shi’ite government.” Many Sunnis, who benefited under Saddam’s reign, regard the Shi’ites in government as pawns of Iran because politicians such as Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari spent the war in exile there.
Aga also had little faith in a fair vote and said the government would fix the election in its favor. “They just want to let the people feel they are practicing democracy,” he said. “People in the government are just instruments for America and Israel. If I accept this constitution, then I will be like them.” He added that the constitution was un-Islamic and against Iraq traditions because it was created under foreign occupation.
A neighbor, Mustafa Hamdi, a 35-year-old barber also rejected he document. “They imported this constitution from abroad,” he said. “This is only for Kurds and other parties,” meaning Iran.
However, the Sunnis seem to have come out in droves in several swing provinces, such as Nineveh, and there’s a real chance this might go down to the wire. Anbar and Salahadin provinces — containing the cities of Fallujah and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, respectively — will almost certainly vote against the document. But Ninevah is home to Mosul, a mixed city of about 2 million Sunni Arabs and Kurds. If the Kurds stayed home out of complacency — and I’m hearing that Kurdish and Shi’ite participation was lower than expected — the Sunnis might just pull off a huge upset.
That will change everything. The Sistani coalition, made up of mainly of religious Shi’ite parties, will be crack apart. The secular parties involved, including Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, will split off. One possibility is to see them ally with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the National Dialogue Council, who are seeking an alliance to run for elections in December. The religious parties will be unable to go to the voters with a single accomplishment. They haven’t delivered power, water or security. The economy is still in shambles and unemployment is high. If the constitution passes, at least they’ll be able to say to their constituents, “At least we secured our seat of power and put the Sunnis in their place.” If it doesn’t, what can they offer?
On the Sunnis side, you’ll see newly resurgent political groups — and the end of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which supported a “last-minute deal”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1116781,00.html to amend the constitution after the election of a permanent Assembly in December. Formerly united with the National Dialogue Council and the Association of Muslim Scholars opposed it, the IIP switched last week with the announcement of the deal and called for its people to support it. If the constitution fails because of Sunni “no” votes, that will show the IIP to be toothless and it will lose support. The Association of Muslim Scholars, at the same time, will be shown to have the real juice among the Sunnis, as it has been a long-time opponent of the invasion, the occupation, the Iraqi government and the constitution. The National Dialogue Council is fairly new, and will also benefit, but from what I’m hearing it was the Sunni mosques, not the secularists of the NDC, that got the vote out.
As for the Americans, they’ll have a a new political reality to deal with. The AMS has deep ties to the insurgency, and a no vote and infusion of political capital will, ironically, allow the Americans to start dealing seriously with the Association — and thus, the insurgency. That could actually be the start of peace talks.
If the constitution wins decisively, however, the Sunnis will grumble but likely work within the system. Sunni members of the constitutional committee, from Fallujah no less, have said as such. They promised to run a slate of candidates that can actively shape the constitution when it’s up for amendments in April.
The absolute worst-case scenario is if the Sunnis come close to defeating the constitution, but fail. There will be accusations of vote-rigging and any political momentum the Sunnis felt was moving their way will be spent. The Shi’ites will have consolidated their power and those Sunnis on the fence might be moved into active opposition. The insurgency might even worsen, if such things are possible, or a close vote might be the trigger for “open civil war”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/09/civil_war_is_he.php.
So, it will definitely be interesting to watch the results come in. So far, we’re hearing nothing but rumors. They range from the intriguing — I heard that the polling stations in the Green Zone, the seat the Iraqi Government, went overwhelmingly against the constitution; make of that what you will — to the absurd: Al-Firat, an Iranian channel, is reporting that instead of voting “no,” Salahadin province, containing Tikrit, voted 75 percent in favor of the constitution. If that result turns out to be true, there will be no doubt the vote was fixed, and in a stupidly clumsy manner.
I do think that defeating the constitution might be best in the long run. It will embolden the Sunnis and give them a political win, motivating them to further involve themselves in the political process. This will force the Shi’ites and Kurds to deal with real elected representatives instead of appointed ones. Will this spell and end to violence? Of course not, but anything that allows the Sunnis to claim victory instead of forcing them to eat political table scraps is a big step in ending the Sunni-led insurgency.

2 thoughts on “Quiet Election Day; Sunnis Show Up”

  1. Massive Iraqi Sunni vote, 5 US soldiers killed on “peaceful day”

    Chris Albritton has a post up about the Iraqi referendum, which begins, BAGHDAD — Well, well… The Sunnis might surprise us all on this one.The absolute worst-case scenario is if the Sunnis come close to defeating the constitution, but fail. There …

  2. The Vote

    Well, I’m still holding my breath. I think the best commentary has come from Christopher, who – through no coincidence – happens also to be in Iraq. I dunno. I hope that the Sunnis don’t lose by a gnat’s whisker…

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