A belief in politics

December 29, 2004

THERE ARE ELECTIONS and then there are elections. The contrast between the rigged election last month in Ukraine, for instance, and the rigged election held Sunday in Uzbekistan is instructive, and there's a lesson that can apply beyond the boundaries of those two formerly Soviet nations.

At the start, both countries hold brazenly fraudulent votes. This is becoming the default position for the ex-Soviet countries. Ukraine had stuffed ballot boxes, voter intimidation, a one-sided campaign on television and a poisoning attempt on the life of the opposition presidential candidate. Uzbekistan also went for stuffed ballot boxes, voter intimidation (by "poll watchers"), and an even more one-sided campaign, because opposition parties were barred from taking part in the elections for a new parliament.

But something remarkable developed in Ukraine after the fraud was committed: The civil action of the Orange Revolution succeeded in forcing the government to run the vote again, and this time on a relatively open and balanced basis. The opposition standard-bearer, Viktor A. Yushchenko, carried the day.

Don't look for a repeat in Uzbekistan.

Locked deep in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is largely beyond the reach of well-meaning groups that would encourage political organizing campaigns among opponents of the regime.

Unlike Ukraine, and unlike Georgia and Serbia, which have also experienced positive political transformations with the help of outsiders, Uzbekistan doesn't feel the tug of the West. It is not especially visible and its leaders are not tempted by the thought of joining Europe. The government in Ukraine hesitated to crack down on peaceful protesters in the heart of Kiev; the Uzbek regime not only doesn't hesitate to crack down but has also been accused -- by the former British ambassador -- of having some of its opponents boiled to death.

The lesson here is that even bad elections can be used for good ends, as Ukraine showed.

But there has to be some sort of leverage: people who know how to organize, a government that for whatever reason is susceptible to an organized opposition, and a belief among ordinary voters that they can make a difference. Elections alone are not enough, as Uzbekistan showed.

And this is the lesson that must be carried to Iraq, where elections are still scheduled for late next month. The voting is likely to be pretty seriously flawed, but the government that will emerge will not, at least at first, be an authoritarian one like Uzbekistan's. It will be up to the opposition that arises to keep a check on that government and to keep faith that political action can be successful -- more successful than guns or bombs.

Iraq must establish a belief in politics, or the country will disintegrate.

The rest of the world can help -- by encouraging that belief, by paying attention. The chances for success are slim, in part because the elections will not in themselves be an achievement, but only a fitful beginning of what might become an achievement. Politics is a long-haul endeavor; Iraq looks more and more like a short-fuse country.

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