Election Backlash: Iraq, Palestine and Israel

The phrase “democratic elections” can be misleading in its positive connotation, especially when the countries where the elections take place are embroiled in conflict. In the Middle East, during the past six months, we have witnessed three sets of elections. Each has further entangled an already complex situation. There were the Iraqi elections in December 2005, then the January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA), and, in March, the Israeli elections. In the first two instances, the voting took place during or just after a bloody war; the elections aspired to usher in a new era of conflict resolution.


Let’s begin with Iraq. This country was chosen by the militant Bush administration to serve as a guinea pig in its crusade to eliminate (selectively) dictatorships in the Middle East. The larger purpose was to make the opening shot in a new global policy - now that the Soviet Union was gone - for “shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”[1] The document from which we have quoted, called Rebuilding America’s Defenses (September 2000), became the basis for the foreign and defense policy of US President George W. Bush.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 gave new urgency to America’s drive for global control, as reflected in a later document, “The National Security Strategy of the United States”, published by the Bush Administration on September 20, 2002.[2] It contains what came to be known as the Bush Doctrine: “While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively…” The consequence was clear: Americans would not be safe until Uncle Sam secured its position as the world’s sole superpower. The first step would be to seize control of the Middle East’s oil reserves. This could be packaged as a noble campaign to democratize the region.

The Bush Administration skipped over one little detail: the ethnic and religious structure of Iraq. If it had replaced Saddam Hussein with some other ruthless dictator, it might have gotten the control it wanted. But no, the pretext was democracy, so democracy it had to be. In a society like Iraq’s, however, where ethnic affiliations and religious belief are prime organizing factors, democracy inevitably becomes an alternative form of tyranny. A religious majority will put God’s law first. An ethnic majority will seek to ensure its dominance. When Bush and his neo-cons talked about democracy in Iraq, they were selling it to Americans within an American context. Democracy can be a force for peace and justice, including protection of minority rights, but only under certain conditions. Scientific, industrial and urban revolutions must have done their work, breaking the power of clans and promoting secularization (a prerequisite for separating religion from the state). Even that doesn’t bring economic justice, but it’s a step. However, you can’t take a thing like “democratic elections” out of your secular, industrial context and impose it on a tribal, religious society without getting tyranny-of-the-majority.

The Iraqi elections gave the Shia movements almost half the seats in parliament. The result is a level of tension that cannot be eradicated. For there are other ethnic groups in Iraq, notably the Sunnis and the Kurds. Each is big enough to make big problems.

As prime minister, the Shia at first proposed Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who had headed the provisional government during the months before the elections. Washington, the Sunnis and the Kurds did not like him. The Administration’s view was also the view of a New York Times editorial on February 14, 2006, called “The Wrong Man in Iraq”:

“Mr. Jaafari has been a spectacular failure…. He is unlikely to do a better job if he gets the job a second time, particularly since he owes his selection to a political deal with the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a man whose own armed gang, the Mahdi Army, is very much part of the problem.”

On April 2, the Times editorial called Moktada al-Sadr “a radical anti-American cleric who leads a powerful private militia that is behind much of the sectarian terror.”

Ethnic militias are everywhere in Iraq, indeed, because ethnic mistrust there has deep historical foundations, reaching deep down into the period of Saddam Hussein. This mistrust was part of the “given,” before the Great White Bush arrived with shock, awe and democracy. What else was to be expected?

The Times editorial of February 14 declared that “democracy does not require confirming him (Jaafari) as prime minister,” and so it happened: under pressure from Washington, the man exalted by the democratic process was forced to step aside. Instead, his spokesperson, Jawad al-Maliki, has been put forward. Malaki is “a stalwart of Iraq’s Dawa party - the Shia political group that for years led an armed underground resistance to the secular Baathist leadership of Saddam Hussein.”3 Given the religious and ethnic context, is there any reason to think that Maliki will succeed where Jaafari did not? The imposition of American interests, we shall see, will only complicate the existing strife, pushing the country deeper into civil war.

There is another side to the coin. While Iraq has become a pile of rubble, the Americans too have paid heavily for their exported “adventure in democracy.” First, the Bush Administration has increased the importance of Iran as a geopolitical power, because of the Shia connection. America will need Iranian cooperation if it is ever to extricate itself from its Iraq nightmare (a point that should be reckoned with in speculations about a US attack on Iran). Second, since the start of the war the price of oil has more than doubled, from $30 per barrel to $70. Third, more than 2300 American soldiers have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded, contributing to a plunge in Bush’s popularity and the likelihood of a lame-duck presidency after the Congressional elections in November. Washington’s endorsement of Maliki, it appears, derives from its desire to make a quick escape from the cauldron of its own creation, rather than from any new formula for resolving sectarian conflicts.

The Palestinian Arena

In the Palestinian Authority (PA), the divisions do not run along religious or ethnic lines. Here too, however, democratic elections did not help anyone.

Elections took place as the result of a deal between PA President Abu Mazen and Hamas: the latter would pause in its armed struggle, and in exchange Abu Mazen would hold elections. Hamas moved eagerly toward the polls on both the municipal and national levels.

First it won landslide victories in the municipalities. Aghast, Abu Mazen wanted to postpone the national elections. Bush, though, insisted he go through with them. Severely criticized over Iraq, the American president wanted to show momentum toward democracy in the Middle East. So elections there were, in January, and the Hamas victory took everyone including Hamas by surprise.

Most pundits had expected that the voting pattern would differ from that in the municipal polls. But the people contradicted this, again choosing Hamas. They did so not because of the movement’s extremism or its refusal to recognize Israel, and not because it rejects a negotiated solution. The people simply demonstrated the depth of its disgust with the corrupt PA and Fatah. The vote was also a way of punishing Israel and America. “You want democracy? Here’s some in your face!”

While on the subject of punishment, we should note that the Americans and Israelis are past masters. At least in the short term. The hazing through which they’re putting Hamas, with no scruples about starving Palestinians, is aimed at transforming it into Fatah. It’s as if they were saying: “Either change your stripes and adopt the Fatah policy or get out of the game. We don’t just determine the rules, we decide the final score.”

It has often been said in these pages that Hamas never intended to hit the jackpot. Because its ideology prevents it from recognizing or negotiating with Israel, it would have preferred to join a government under Fatah. Today the movement is caught in a peculiar situation: the people wants Hamas purity without Hamas politics. Will Hamas sacrifice its agenda for the sake of the people’s? The latest developments do not indicate this. The democratic process entails the risk of winning, and one does well to calculate it beforehand. Too big a victory can spell defeat when the victors are not prepared ideologically for the leadership role.

But the main miscalculation here was Israel’s and America’s. Purity became the chief issue in the Palestinian campaign not just because Fatah corruption was execrable, but because there were no political prospects. What point was there in voting for a group that recognizes and is willing to talk with Israel, when it is clear by now that recognition and talks lead nowhere: they won’t stop the separation barrier, won’t stop cantonization, won’t open Jerusalem, won’t get rid of the settlement blocs, won’t free the prisoners, won’t bring back the refugees, and won’t lead to a real Palestinian state.

And yet all Palestinians stand to lose. Hamas stoops today under international and financial pressures that are likely to end either in civil war or in its withdrawal from politics and a return to arms. Either option spells catastrophe for the Palestinian people.


In Israel, the cradle of Middle Eastern democracy, elections enabled the nation to keep its head in the sand. The founding of Kadima in November 2005, after PM Ariel Sharon’s secession from the Likud, was intended to be the basis for a new Israeli political center. The scenario, known as the “big bang,” had all centrist forces hitching their wagons to Sharon, overwhelming extremists on the left and the right. Smaller parties too would join in. At last, it was hoped, Israel would be able to bulldoze a path toward what Sharon conceived as the nation’s two main tasks: (1) to resolve social problems while preserving a credible economic position in the eyes of foreign investors and financial institutions; and (2) to lessen the scope of the Occupation and unilaterally establish permanent borders. Neither of these projects can withstand the test of reality. As long as it remains within the context of global capitalism, Israel cannot create the jobs it would need in order to narrow social gaps. As for the second task, the Palestinians will not simply surrender. This fabric of self-delusory expectations depended on one man, an old man of colossal proportions who emerged from his ascent of the Knesset stairs each day with a smile on camera as if to say, “Surprise, still here!” Then one day he wasn’t.

At first it seemed that Sharon’s incapacity would not affect the chances of his successor, Ehud Olmert, to continue the project. Olmert even thought to use the expected majority as a sort of national referendum for the unilateral withdrawal he intended to carry through in parts of the West Bank. As Election Day approached, however, worrisome signs appeared. The day after, Israel awoke to a strange, diffuse political map. Kadima led - but with only 29 mandates of the 120. Labor declined from 22 to 19. Shinui, which had been third in size with 15 mandates, disappeared entirely. The public punished the Likud, which fell from 40 to 12. It raised up a new right-wing party under Avigdor Lieberman (11 mandates). The lack of trust in Olmert or Amir Peretz, the new head of the Labor Party, expressed itself in a protest vote for the Pensioners’ Party (7 mandates).

Democratic elections, in sum, can be harmful, especially when conditions are such that they can only lead to sectarian strife, as in Iraq; or when they offer no meaningful political prospect, as in the Palestinian territories; or when they distract a nation from facing reality, as in Israel.

CHALLENGE is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. This article first appeared in CHALLENGE No. 97 and is reprinted with permission.


Related Links

  • The real meaning of deporting Hamas members of Parliament, Jonathan Cook (22 April 2006)
  • Hamas Being Forced to Collapse, Sam Bahour (17 April 2006)
  • Israel’s Elections: A Decisive Vote for Apartheid, Omar Barghouti (8 April 2006)
  • A just peace or no peace, Ismail Haniyeh (31 March 2006)