Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine: Can ballots keep the bullets at bay?

Talk about high-stakes voting. Each election pretty much comes down to a test of whether the country that's voting can even survive as one nation.

At stake in each case is whether the country that's voting can even survive as a nation

Employees of Iraq's independent electoral commission count ballots Wednesday following the first set of parliamentary elections since U.S. forces withdrew. (Wissm al-Okili / Reuters)

It is an irony of our tumultuous times that we face critical national elections simultaneously in a trio of the world's most volatile countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Talk about high-stakes voting. Each election pretty much comes down to a test of whether the country that's voting can even survive as one nation.

It also says much that battered Afghanistan is the closest to a good news story of the three, as seven million voters turned out to cast first-round ballots in defiance of Taliban death threats.

I know one could include Syria in this grouping. But that would surely stretch electoral credibility well past the breaking point, as it's impossible to see how embattled dictator/president Bashar al-Assad can possibly justify calling a June 4 presidential election amid a raging civil war.

Of our three high-stakes votes, Ukraine is probably the most pressing concern. On May 25, Ukrainians are to elect a national government to replace the interim and unelected power group in Kyiv.

It's widely believed in the West that Ukraine cannot make urgently needed economic reforms, let alone stand up to Russian pressure and the growing insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, without a credibly elected national government.

So crucial is the May vote that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to send an astonishing force of almost 500 Canadian election observers there.

But will there even be an election to observe?

As the BBC recently put it, there is little chance a credible election can be held given Russian resistance and the ongoing turmoil in the eastern regions.

Russia has warned it may not even recognize the election, a position that suggests voting would open the floodgates to still more insurgency from pro-Russia militias within Ukraine.

Ukraine's invisible election

Essentially, Russia's position is that any national election in Ukraine must be held only after a referendum is held on a new constitution, under which Russian minorities would be granted significant regional powers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want to see a Ukraine election that might well hand a majority to a pro-Western, pro-NATO government, and he seems determined to destabilize the country until he gets something more to his choosing — like a weak Ukraine federation with strong links to Moscow.

Supporters of former Ukraine prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko attend a party meeting in central Kyiv last month shortly after she was released from jail. She has since kept her presidential campaigning very low key. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)

Given the lack of a diplomatic breakthrough to end the crisis, it's hard to see how balloting can take place in Eastern Ukraine. It's not even clear election observers could safely function there.

This likely explains why the expected campaigns seem all but invisible, even with voting less than a month away.

Visiting media have found few posters and leaflets, and no rallies. There are 28 presidential candidates but little sight of them, which is most odd for a country that usually has vigorous, if highly mud-splattered, elections.

"This is probably the first time in the country when a presidential election campaign is essentially not happening," Thor Tishchenko, a prominent sociologist told The Atlantic "….the candidates are practically not campaigning"

Even the famously telegenic Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, has turned her Fatherland Party away from the campaign in order to "resist" Russian intimidation in the East, while the leading candidate, wealthy businessman Petro Poroshenko, has limited his drive to a few low-key TV ads.

It seems Ukrainians, emotionally exhausted after months of turmoil, are in no mood for divisive campaigns. They, too, may have doubts the May vote can go ahead as scheduled.

Iraq coming apart

Meanwhile in Iraq, voting began yesterday in a country almost completely unstable from top to bottom. Close to 5,000 have been killed, according to media reports, in the run-up to these elections for a new parliament.

Those daring to vote do so in an atmosphere of terror, intimidation and near civil war.

When the U.S. wrapped up its occupation of Iraq just over two years ago it left behind a political system of shared power based on tribal and religious community connections, in hopes that would encourage power sharing. It did not.

Iraq's election has been marred by an increase in sectarian violence and car bombs that have killed scores of people, like this one in the Sadr City neighbourhood of Baghdad earlier this month. (Associated Press)

Instead social divisions fed the often violent competition for power that has now spiraled into increasingly murderous sectarian warfare. A mainly Shia government, backed by a loose alliance of Shia militias and supported by neighboring Shia power Iran, has worked to further marginalize Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Today, even a branch of al-Qaeda is back, attacking Shia militias and government forces alike. Meanwhile the running civil war next door in Syria adds steady fuel to the fire with militants crossing back and forth.

At the centre of this perfect storm, the U.S. choice to lead the country, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has transformed himself a ruthless strongman (now there's a surprise), seeking a third term that some fear could turn into a dictatorship.

Maliki now scares friends almost as much as enemies, so some Shia factions will likely vote for other power blocks, which could make post-election coalition forming difficult.

It's expected though that Sunni and Kurdish minorities will see their influence further eroded. So, far from bringing Iraqis together, the election may push them still further apart.

A sign of progress?

There was plenty of pessimism as well towards Afghanistan's first round of voting, which began three weeks ago, given the ongoing insurgency and the country's weak political system. This time, however, the surprise was positive.

The security forces blunted Taliban threats to attack voting places, and an estimated 60 per cent of Afghan voters turned out to vote (35 per cent of those who voted were women), well above the turnout in 2009.

This election marks the end of the era of President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by law from running again and seemed unable to influence the outcome (his own rumored candidate came in a distant third).

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, familiar with the West, was the leader in the first round of ballotting. The runoff is June 7. (Mohammad Ismail / Reuters)

The two front-runners are well known moderates: Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, an academic. As neither received the needed 50 per cent to win outright, they will now fight to pick up support from the other factions for the June 7 runoff.

A free Afghan press is lapping it up while women and ethnic voters are being heavily courted by leading candidates.

What's more no one can now really say who'll be the next president, a sign itself of progress, and something to be noted. Those signs come all too rarely. 

About the Author

Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

One of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents, Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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