Iraq's voters were under a death threat. Foreign troops occupied their country. Campaigning was limited by fear of reprisals. The candidates were mostly unknown. So what did an election held under those circumstances mean?
"The fact that they are voting in itself is successful," President Bush said four days before the election. He had a point. To vote in Iraq on January 30 was an act of courage. Adnan al-Zurfi, governor of Najaf, pledged, "If they are going to kill us, we are not going to stop. If they bomb the city, we are not going to stop. Freedom and democracy must take place in this country."
The insurgents charged that anyone who voted was siding with foreign occupiers. Why would Iraqis risk their lives to cast a ballot? To make a statement of defiance against the insurgents, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations said. "Every Iraqi who will participate in the elections will be proud to say that he was one of those who defied the terrorists," the ambassador, Samir S.M. Sumaidaie, observed as he cast his ballot in New Carrollton, Md.
Bush declared, "By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists."
But what were Iraqis voting for? Laith Kubba, senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy and an Iraqi citizen, put it this way: "They are very much voting for the process itself. A lot of people are saying, 'I don't care who I'm voting for, but I want to vote.'"
The Bush administration finally got the scenes it had expected when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003: scenes of Iraqis dancing in the streets. They were celebrating democracy—the process, not the results.
The results could raise new problems. Will Iraq hold together? Insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi says that one of his objectives is to foment sectarian violence and civil war. A civil war could lead to the breakup of Iraq and the total failure of U.S. policy there.
The Sunni Arabs are the biggest problem. They are the minority that used to rule Iraq. They now face the prospect of losing power. The election rules only make the Sunni problem more serious. The number of seats a party wins is proportional to the number of votes the party received. A party that got 10 percent of the vote on January 30 will win 10 percent of the seats. So if most Sunnis did not vote, either because of fear or because of a boycott, they won't get their fair share of seats in the national assembly that will draft a new constitution.
The problem could have been avoided if Sunni-majority districts had been created. Sunnis would have been elected no matter how low their turnout. Kubba warned, "If we do not include the [Sunni] community in the process, we're simply handing millions of people to the insurgency."
To avert sectarian conflict, the winners will have to reach out to the losers. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "I would expect the Sunni politicians will enter in, not through the elections process, but through the constitution-drafting process in the coming months."
The largest number of votes is expected to go to a coalition of two Shiite Islamic parties that has the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. If that happens, Iraq will become the first Arab country with a Shiite government.
Does that mean a radical Islamic government? Shiite leaders say they do not intend to impose one. Ayatollah Sistani adheres to the "quietist" tradition, which holds that clergy ought to stay aloof from politics.
What about the expectations of Shiite voters? Were they voting for theocracy? Kubba describes Iraqis as having cast personal votes, driven not by "the kind of government they'd like to have, but by the kinds of people they trust." He explains, "By and large, Iraqis trust religious leaders more than politicians, but that does not necessarily mean they want a religious state."
The United States was not the only country hoping the election would go well. The leading Shiite religious parties have close ties to Iran. A big victory by those parties could create fear among many Iraqis that Iran would gain influence. Still, there are reasons to believe that Iran will not be pulling the strings of a new Iraqi government. Iraq's Shiites are Arabs, not Persians. They fought loyally for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, despite Ayatollah Khomeini's exhortations to the oppressed Shiites to rise up against Saddam.
Iraq is the big test for the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy. "Whatever happens in Iraq will be used either for or against this doctrine," said Mohammed Alami, chief Washington correspondent for the Arabic TV network Al Jazeera. Other Arabs will be watching to see whether Iraq's government is capable of providing stability and security. "If they see it, then I think you will see many Arabs saying, 'You know what, maybe this democracy thing isn't such a bad idea,'" predicted Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
If they don't see it, Pollack said, "you're going to see a lot of Arabs saying, 'Democracy is a terrible idea, and we don't want what they've got in Iraq.'"