Monday, January 31, 2005

Zippity-Doo-Dah

Well now, I think yesterday was a pretty good day.

It is not the end, of course. In reality, yesterday was the opening shot in an 11 month process culminating (hopefully) in parliamentary elections in December.

I for one do not expect the violence to stop, or even tail off. However, I do think that on a Big Picture level we can give it a cautious thumbs up and on the level of individual Iraqis it was a fantastic day and we should all join in a big circle and sing campfire songs.

I'd like to make a few individual points:

  • Turnout was ok. Not stellar, but not bad either. Given the importance of trust and credibility in a COIN situation I would have prefered it if the electoral authorities had not started babbling on about a 72% turnout (later cranked up to 76%) because it doesn't look ideal now that it has slumped back to around 60%.
  • We don't yet know what the Sunni vote was. We need to find out. Some estimates put the turnout around 25%. Given that Kurdish and Shia areas saw turnouts in excess of 80% on a national turnout of 60%, I think we need to accept that Sunni turnout may have been very low. One of the more worrying aspects for me is that the government marshalled the press into operating only at certain polling stations - these were inevitably in heavily Shia areas where turnout could be reliably expected to be high and where there would be much dancing in the streets. So we need to know the Sunni vote. We also need to look at another factor - comparisons between Sunni turnout in the insurgent-dominated areas and Sunni turnout in reliably coalition controlled areas (such as Basra, where there is a small but significant Sunni presence). If the Sunni turned out in the South but not in the centre, we can tentatively posit that Sunni no-shows were largely due to insurgent threat. If the Sunnis stopped off at home with a cup of tea across the country, we may be talking legitimacy problems.
  • Happily, the insurgents did not seem to be able to pull anything spectacular out of the hat. I am surprised and pleased. In fact in terms of active operations it seemed to be a very bad day for them. We need to be careful however. The failure to make nasty may have been representative of a general trend or it may simply be a result of temporarily beefed up Coalition security. Or - perhaps less likely - it may be a sign that the insurgents believe that they have got the Sunni population at large sufficiently under their thumb not to need to try for a "spectacular" that this point (I doubt it though).

Always allowing for the fact that we don't know the results of the election yet, it seems to me working on the assumption that the Shiite and Kurdish parties will probably have pretty much swept the board, that is is now important for the winners to undertake a policy of appeasement from a position of strength. It is over the next 11 months that we will discover whether Grand Ayatollah Sistani is a Mandela-like statesman who will try to unite and reconcile or a shrewd, canny Kissingerian who has played a cynical blinder and managed to get his people into a position where they can get their hands on the entire kitty.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. It's too early to be too concrete right now. But I would certainly argue that this is just the start of a new stage and that what happens over the next year will be crucial. It could go either way and nothing is set in stone at this point.

P.S. On Sky News yesterday, one of the presenters in a moment of excitement referred to the elections as "one in the eye for the terrorists". I'm not saying he's right - though I hope he is - it was just rather nice to see somebody on the news talking like that. Actually, I recognise he may have been exceeding his brief - not asking for Fox News or anything - but I get so weary of the sour, po-faced dirge that some BBC correspondents serve up as a matter of course. If I want sour, po-faced dirge, I'm quite capable of serving it up myself.

P.P.S I think it's probably worth looking at the heavy security measures implemented by the Coalition as well. Sustainable on a day to day basis? Perhaps not, at least not in the same context as... er... anything else functioning. But the point is that is seemed to work. Lessons for the future? I think so.


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