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Two Votes Down, One To Go

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson, who has covered the State Department for ten years, was also Tel Aviv bureau chief and a producer for The CBS Evening News.
Nothing helps a democracy movement like an election.

The Bush administration says it's on a mission to bring democracy to the greater Middle East. So the administration is more than pleased to have ended last year and begun this year by going two for two. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai was inaugurated in December and now, the Palestinians have elected Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to succeed Yasir Arafat.

But these were the easy ones, at least compared to the upcoming Iraqi election scheduled for January 30th

Although these two elections were conducted successfully, no one should conclude either of the newly elected leaders has an easy road ahead. But the possibility of success is surely enhanced by the legitimacy even a flawed lection can provide.

Karzai faces challenges from war lords for control of regions outside Kabul and from international narcotics syndicates which do not want to see a government-promised crackdown on opium poppy production take place.

The Palestinians may have a new leader, but serious questions remain whether Abbas has the political clout to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis. His ability to do that will affect Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on Prime Minister Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza as well as any future progress on reviving peace talks.

As analyst Barry Rubin noted after the election, "Abu Mazen is now the elected head of the Palestinian movement but he is far from being its leader." Moreover, Rubin adds "Regarding a ceasefire and a stop to terrorism, Abu Mazen's statements, widely reported in the West, calling for an end to violence do not appear in the Palestinian media that he controls. Both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Arafat Brigades, part of his own Fatah group, say they will continue terrorism."

Still, for Afghans and Palestinians there has been a major step forward toward democratic government. However only continued pressure from Washington and from European and Middle Eastern capitals will keep the momentum moving in that direction.

Senior American officials, crowing over these election results, are trying to be optimistic about the chances of the Iraqis pulling off an election which will be seen as free and fair enough to pass international standards. Optimism, however, will only take you so far.

While the voting forecast looks pretty good for Kurdish-controlled areas in the North and in Shi'a-controlled areas of the South, the participation of Sunnis in the central part of Iraq, including Baghdad, is very much an open question. Realism seems to setting in both in Washington and Baghdad among politicians and policy makers, virtually all of who foresee a flawed election at best taking place on the 30th. The real question is how flawed it will be.

The reality is plainly illustrated in the daily count of attacks and bombings employed as tactics of intimidation and fear by insurgents against American and coalition forces and, most especially as far as the election is concerned, against Iraqis. Iraqis who cooperate with the U.S. military, like police trainees, are frequent targets as are those who work to carry out the election itself.

The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi Election Commission and the Bush administration all seem to be of the same mind: it's better to hold a flawed election on January 30th than to delay it and have to hold what many think would be an equally flawed election at some later date.

"We can't delay the election because there are terrorists and murderers and former regime elements who are trying to keep that election from happening," Secretary of State Colin Powell told National Public Radio, "to delay it, it means they win."

The Bush administration obviously has much more at stake in the Iraqi election than in either the Afghan or the Palestinian elections. The sooner an elected Iraqi government can empower an Iraqi security force to stand up to those who continue to violently oppose the American presence there, the sooner U.S. military forces can start to withdraw. This won't happen anytime soon even in the best of circumstances, but it has to happen before President Bush can claim victory and start to bring the troops home.

Simply put, you can't have a democracy movement without an election.

By Charles M. Wolfson