Vietnam had free elections, too

Observers gave glowing reviews of the election in Iraq.

“As moving and profound an example of the desire for self-determination as can be found anywhere,” said Gov. William Guy, D-North Dakota, in a one-hour round-table conference with the president.

“As good as any election in the United States,” said Gov. Thomas McCall, R-Oregon.

Werner Gullander, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said, “I believed we [went there] because we had selfish interest, but I’m soft-hearted enough that I now believe in addition that these are beautiful and wonderful people and we cannot let them down.”

The election was a stunning success. More than 80 percent turnout was initially reported in spite of violence (although this figure has been revised downward). Surely no one could doubt we’re guiding a budding democracy.

Except these quotes were published Nov. 7, 1967 about Vietnam.

I’m not going to use the tired eight-letter ‘Q’ word, and the elections in Iraq and South Vietnam were very different, but many people need a reality check.

Votes alone do not make democracy, unless one calls some of the most corrupt nations on Earth democratic. Democracy doesn’t work like a light switch.

Following through with the elections was the right thing to do; caving to terrorists would be a bad precedent for the provisional government to set. Encouragingly, much of Iraq voted on Jan. 30 in spite of violence. The overall turnout, even revised, exceeds the United State’s 2004 percentage, but this belies an unrepresentative election.

Due to insurgent threats and calls for boycott, local turnout was nearly nonexistent in many areas. Systematic and undemocratic under-representation among Sunnis was a price paid to keep Iraq’s ambitious timetable.

In fact, Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani arguably pushed for expedited elections to trounce some minorities (namely Sunnis) who refused to participate.

Some Americans might rejoice that Sunnis will be under-represented (Sunnis lead the insurgency). On the other hand, an entire demographic has been marginalized. The election may very well inflame ethnic tensions and undermine democratic aspirations for any new Iraqi government.

To make matters worse, the Shiites don’t seem very keen on building a democracy anyway.

Members of the party Sistani advises have increasingly called for government based on Islam. Such state will likely not ratify robust free-speech rights commonly thought necessary for democracy.

At worst, the National Assembly could integrate cleric rule as Iran does. January’s elections might be the freest Iraq ever has.

If we’re very lucky, Sistani and the other clerics will defer to a secular state. Perhaps Iraq will some day form a government capable of representing its people.

In spite of the president’s six-point approval jump, it’s a long way to the land of milk and honey.

[email protected]