Voting only first step on long road

Its full impact on Iraq won't be known for years

February 06, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IT WAS BY FAR the most powerful moment in George Bush's State of the Union address. Late in the speech, he introduced Safia Taleb al-Suhail to Congress and the television audience. The Iraqi woman, whose father was killed by Saddam Hussein's security apparatus, held up her index finger that still bore traces of the purple ink that showed she had voted in last Sunday's election.

Not long after that, Bush introduced William and Janet Norwood, whose Marine son was killed in the assault on Fallujah. They were sitting directly behind Safia, who turned to express her gratitude for the sacrifice that had allowed her to vote. She embraced a tearful Janet Norwood. Their hug went on for several minutes as the applause grew, transcending the stagecraft of these stars-in-the-audience moments that have become de rigueur at State of the Union addresses.

Embodied before this powerful audience was the unspeakable sacrifice of more than 1,400 American families and the profound change that such sacrifice can help bring about. Whether that change was worth the price was the question framed by that lengthy embrace.

In fact, the full nature of that change will not be known for years. Beyond the joy of that first vote is a hard road to a real democracy.

Anyone who has witnessed something akin to what happened in Iraq a week ago can testify to the power of the first trip to the polls after years of totalitarian rule. The act of voting, so taken for granted in Western democracies, is revealed for what it is - a fundamental statement that changes nations and individuals.

The archetype may be South Africa of a decade ago, when voters formed long lines, patiently, joyously waiting to cast ballots that would remove the shadow of apartheid from that troubled land and elect one of the most admired men in the world, Nelson Mandela, as president. The result has been a democracy that, though dominated by one party, is still quite vibrant.

The danger is assuming that that will always be the outcome. About the same time South Africa was trooping to the polls, democracy appeared on the march throughout that continent. Reformers swept out so-called African "Big Men," who had ruled their countries with increasing authority since independence, in Zambia and Malawi. Democratic votes were supposed to put an end to decades of fighting in Angola and Mozambique. These countries were as excited about voting as South Africa or Iraq.

But within a few years, most told a different story. In Angola, the opposition candidate, Jonas Savimbi, rejected the results of the election he lost and went back to fighting.

In Malawi, the reform president tried to change the constitution so he could remain in office after his term was up. In Zambia, the new ruling party put in complicated eligibility requirements to ensure that the departed Big Man - Kenneth Kaunda - could not run in the next election.

Only in Mozambique did the new government seem to avoid this fate - probably because the country was so poor that nothing was worth squabbling over.

Last Sunday's vote in Iraq is clearly worth celebrating, but it is only the first step on a long and difficult path.

Iraq, like these African countries, is a creation of the colonial era. It is never clear whether such creations have enough of a sense of national identity to support a democracy. Without that, varying political parties can have completely different ideas about what the country is - an Islamic state, a secular state, a Shiite state, a Sunni state, etc. Many Kurds said they were casting their ballots for an independent Kurdistan, not to be part of Iraq.

The coming months will reveal whether the joy of last Sunday was the expression of a coherent nation or parochial interests. That first vote is always to be celebrated, but it is only the beginning.

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