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Narrating the Iraqi Elections

March 7, 2010

Inky freedom

In Iraq reality often doesn’t need to get in the way of a good story, and the elections being held today are proving to be no exception.

Iraqis are going to the polls (though expatriates and residents of some areas begun voting earlier) for a General Election for the second time since the 2003 invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, but it would appear that the vast majority of western journalists covering them had their stories written well in advance.

The compulsory narrative seems to go something like this:

  1. Headline including word ‘explosions’ or ‘violence’ (mainly because of the explosions and the violence)
  2. Note that a barrage of mortars and other explosions have killed a number in Baghdad, while other explosions have been reported elsewhere (well, its Iraq obviously)
  3. Despite these challenges millions of Iraqis have braved the dangers to vote (good to provide wildly speculative estimate of turnout, or just play it safe and guess ‘millions’)
  4. Provide quote from defiant Iraqi (extra points if you find a woman) who loves democracy (/freedom).   Note that (s)he showed you his ink-stained finger (presumably this adds some kind of authenticity).
  5. Describe this election as important (if possible attribute this statement to someone so as not to have to substantiate it), before qualifying everything by pointing out that all the political options are bad, and that things were probably better under the Saddam Hussein regime.

Its not that anything about these stories is strictly speaking untrue, its just well is this really the story?  They seem to be just falling back on a set of lazy and shared assumptions that wants to find something to ‘sell’.  Its always important to remember that reporters don’t report an event such as this but rather narrate them for a particular audience.

I can’t claim the position of omniscient narrator, but from where I stand the real story of these elections seems to be one of broad indifference.  They are only one among many fronts in which the struggle for power is played out in Iraq, and certainly not one of the most important.  Iraqi themselves are well aware of this.

More often that not across Iraq those already in power will control the outcomes of the vote. For example here in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan where I am, those who are not known to already be with the ruling party who even bothered to try and vote (and they are not many) have found their names missing from the electoral roll.  In Sulaimaniyah, the only northern city in which a degree of pluralism can be said to exist, for weeks now an organised programme of violent suppression has been ongoing to ensure that the Gorran List is not able to take too many seats from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (itself engaged in a relatively non-violent struggle its governing partner the Kurdish Democratic Party).  None of these struggles have much to do with representative government.  They are about access to the vast systems of patronage that those who hold power control.

Iraqis know all this and the majority are staying the hell out of it, but understandably this is not as interesting as brave Iraqis risking life and limb for a dirty finger.  But who is that story meant for?  I’m not sure I know.

One Comment leave one →
  1. theflithyviewer permalink
    March 8, 2010 2:19 pm

    Great article.

    However, I do think, and from what I’ve read, it really depends what area your in that affects the voters feelings towards the elections. For example, recently the Sadr movement, through Sadr himself, have made a strong statement calling on Iraqis to vote as part of the process to rapidly remove the American occupying forces. The act of voting, therefore, is deemed a resisting act towards the occupation and the occupational forces.

    The outcome is still unpredictable. From what I understand, Iyad Allawi has surged in certain areas. Iyad Allawi was, of course, ” the strongman” for a while in Iraq, with the Americans putting him in power of a moment after the Occupying Forces governed the country (Iyad has a history of fraud, embezzlement, etc. elsewhere in the area). So I don’t really see how clear-cut the outcome can be…in certain places.

    Regarding news reporting, its been noted numerously, that reporters – especially Americans- do not venture out of the Green Zone or Baghdad altogether. So I completely ignore what most of them write, because they follow the narrative you’ve outlined there (with the typical crocodile tears creating that human element in their piece, a total must for a Pulitzer Prize.)
    There are brave reporters out there, specifically Iraqis who risk a lot to get the news out. One reporter, an American, is Dahr Jamil. He’s had some incredible coverage of certain events in Iraq that I advise people to check out.

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