Friday, January 28, 2005

Two Countries, Two Elections 

In the mid-1990’s, I had the privilege of witnessing the first postwar election in the tiny Central American country of El Salvador. The Salvadoran postwar transition period was monitored by the U.N. and the election campaign included the rebel parties that had been fighting the government throughout the 1980’s.

There were lots of problems, lots of unfulfilled promises and many unresolved issues leading up to the elections. There was, however, a sense of hope that the campaign might lead to a more workable democracy in the future. The ultra-right Arena party won the first election, based on a campaign of fear, but had to recognize the strength of the various rebel parties, which won local races in some of the larger cities. Arena disavowed the death squads of their wartime heritage, moved further to the center, and agreed to some basic land reforms that the opposition FMLN had fought for.

People wanted peace in El Salvador more than they wanted anything else, including perfect democracy. The government broke a promise to garrison the army on Election Day, there were instances of voter intimidation and intentional disenfranchisement, but overall, the result was considered a reflection of the people’s voice being expressed. The rebel parties, having been formed in war, had much to learn about appealing to voters, forming coalitions, and making a common platform. The ARENA Party brought in technocrats to its leadership, who appealed to a broad desire for a better economy and more jobs in a nation starved for work.

In short, the baseline for a recognizably democratic result was achieved and accepted by most concerned.

These criteria are almost entirely missing from dispatches from Iraq this week as we look at its upcoming elections. The U.N. has a miniscule amount of influence over the conduct of the vote. An occupying army from the United States is currently promoting participation at the barrel of a gun, while Islamist radicals threaten to kill anyone who does participate. Indigenous rebels of various stripes oppose the election and the occupation as well. Many parties representing the second largest ethnic group in the country are boycotting the election and their supporters are presumably doing the same. Only a quarter of all eligible voters are even registered.

It’s hard to expect peace to break out as a result of this farce. We can hope, but when the polling places that seem to have the most festive atmosphere are located not in Iraq, but in the United States, you have to be skeptical about the potential outcome.

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