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The high turnout myth

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By Farooq Sulehria

Religion infuses US President George W. Bush's life. He starts his day on knees and reads the Bible every day, though what he needs are history lessons. The Vietnam War, that he avoided participating in, would be a good beginning in this regard. A New York Times report, published on September 4, 1967, may serve as a proposed first history lesson.

'US Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83 per cent Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror,' screams the headline. It reads: 'United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday.'

Alas the avid Bible reader has no penchant for history. Therefore he described the election as a 'resounding success' making it seem as if democracy was the ultimate ambition behind the US invasion of Iraq.

In fact democracy has never been more than a subsidiary pretext for the Bush administration in its drive to colonise the strategic area stretching from the Gulf to Central Asia. Despotic satraps rule most of this area. From Washington's oldest ally, the most un-democratic Saudi Kingdom, to newer allies: Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. The great champions of democracy like Mubarak of Egypt and Musharraf of Pakistan also mirror the US love for democracy in the region.

As far as the Iraq election is concerned, Arab writer and intellectual Gilbert Achcar delineates the picture pretty well: "The hypocrisy of the Bush administration is limitless: when George W. Bush and his buddies boast about the election in Iraq as an achievement of the civilising mission that they supposedly took upon themselves in bringing democracy to backward Muslims, they sound like a boss boasting about having raised the wages of the workers in his factory as an illustration of his eagerness to improve their living standard, when, in reality, the raise was imposed on him by the workers going on strike".

Even ridiculous was 'Tory' Blair crying hoarse: "The force of freedom was felt throughout Iraq". True! With tanks on the Baghdad roads, bridges closed, borders sealed three days prior to the polling day, armed groups threatening to 'wash the streets with blood', Iraqis indeed felt the 'force of freedom'. So strong was this force that election observers did not dare step inside Iraqi borders. They preferred to 'monitor' the polling from their safe hotel suites in the Jordanian capital. Worse still, the electoral candidates did not dare expose their identities or openly campaign. According to pro-Allawi Al-Sabah newspaper, Iraqis recognised only 7 per cent of the contestants. The polling booths were kept secret until a day before the polling, nor were Baath Party functionaries allowed to participate.

"The election fell so completely short of accepted electoral standards", noted a Guardian contributor, "that had it been held in, say Zimbabwe or Syria, Britain and USA would have been the first to denounce it" (Jan 31).

But corporate media continues with its barrage of propaganda. Terming 50 killings (in which all but two were Americans), on election day as 'less than expected', it thus justified the 'high turnout' as proof of the success of Bush's project to 'democratise' the Muslim world. 'Experts' who perhaps never voted themselves all their lives, were unleashed on TV screens to drive home the importance of a turnout that initially was as high as 90 per cent according to Fox News, brought down to 72 per cent by International Electoral Commission's Farid Ayar. In ether case, it was exaggerated. The 'final' score is over 50 per cent. The pro-Israel, Jewish website Debka was still not convinced and declared that the turn out was 40-45 per cent.

Interestingly, expatriate Iraqi voters who provided the opportunity to vote by the International Office of Migration in 14 different countries, did not vote despite their facing no security threat -- only 280, 303 out of an estimated one million eligible voters bothered to register themselves -- while eight million inside Iraq thronged the polling stations, staking their lives. How come? It was perhaps, as free-lancer Dahr Jamail points out, 'some voted just for food' as 'voting in Baghdad was linked with receipt of food rations'. Or perhaps it was Ayatollah Sistani's fatwa declaring vote-casting a religious duty, with not voting tantamount to risking hell. The majority of expatriates risked hell, but the fatwa did not promise heaven in case of fulfilling the duty. Still the Shia majority risked their lives rather than risking hell. Small digression: according to Osama's fatwa, casting a vote would be risking hell.

Sunni voters paid no heed to Sistani's fatwa, and there was an almost total boycott in their areas. The Sunni turnout is not mentioned. But a debate over the turnout figures is meaningless anyway; even if there were a high turnout, it would in no way be an endorsement of the US occupation.

On the contrary, according to the initial results at the time of writing (over two-thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted), the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance was sweeping ahead of its nearest rival Iyad Allawi by three votes to one.

The manifesto of the winning United Iraqi Alliance promises to end occupation, while Allawi represents the Bush administration. Most votes thus went to an 'anti-occupation alliance' -- in the eyes of the Shia masses at least - a fact that the Occupation authority in Baghdad will not acknowledge. Just as the Occupation authorities in Saigon refused to accept the outcome of the 1967 polls in Vietnam. Washington hailed the election of President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky as a 'major step forward'. The step forward was consigned to the dustbin of history in less than a decade. The high turnout in Iraq's election is just a new turn for the US to find its Nguyens. This in no way is a decisive turn. A decisive turn perhaps will be when Iraq succeeds finding its Ho Chi Minh.

P.S: The holding of Iraq election on January 30 was an interesting coincidence. It was on the night of January 30 that the Tet offensive was launched. Another proposed history lesson for the Bible reader.

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