Monday, April 12, 2010

Elections and media in Iraq and Lanka

By Kumar David - The March 2010 elections in Iraq were factious, frenzied and fought fiercely. Now the national assembly is on a knife edge; 91 for Iyad Alawi’s coalition, 89 for Nouri el-Maliki’s, and 145 distributed among a quarrelsome gaggle. The radical cleric al-Sadr’s group collected 65 and a Kurdish coalition 50. Now there will be weeks of horse-trading to get a working coalition. A very different outcome from the one sided presidential election of January 26 and presumably a similar parliamentary outcome, by the time you read this. The bigger contrast is the feisty vibrancy of the Iraqi media compared to Lanka’s pliant version. The worst is TV; Lanka’s sycophantic Kim-il-sung style airwaves sing eternal hosannas to mighty Rajapaksa.

There are lessons in the first shoots of noisy and venal democracy taking root in Iraq, much in contrast to the authoritarianism spreading in every space in this country. Newspapers sprouted in hundreds during the Iraqi elections; diverse, fractious, sectarian, and feverishly hostile to the other side. There was no such thing as a balanced or impartial rag, but there were so many that what any one newspaper did not provide the media as a whole amply accomplished. The press was fearlessly vocal, perhaps excessively savage since it did not need to cringe. No state owned or American chauffeured white vans roamed the streets collecting disagreeable scribes who dared thumb their noses at crummy politicos or the military. In our lovely motherland columnists who speak their mind, NGO types who critique the regime, in fact all animals with backbones, had better watch their step.

Did not enjoy the pleasure of visits by the CID

There are dozens of TV channels in Iraq; sectarian, diverse and prone to ruction. Stacks of channels supported each of the different electoral slates. Studios opposed to the government did not enjoy the pleasure of visits by the CID nor attract midnight incendiary devices courtesy the state. Indeed it was prime minister el-Maliki who grumbled that state owned TV was unfair to him and he is now complaining that the elections commissioner was prejudiced. To us locals this sounds like happenings on planet Mars.

Going different ways

Iraq and Lanka are both nations with more in common than simultaneous election cycles; both are coming out of a war both are multi-ethnic. There are three major groups in Iraq; Shia Arabs (60-65%), Sunni Arabs (20%) and Kurds (15-20%); Iraqi Kurds are not Arabs, but they are Sunni Muslims. The American war of aggression is downright illegal but now that Saddam is gone a Pandora’s Box has opened. The commotion spewing out is chaotic but such are the birth pangs of a messy democratic order and the sooner the Americans get out and leave it to the Iraqis to sort themselves out the better. There will be more violence and conflict but over time Iraq will muddle through to tumultuous democracy and serviceable pluralism though the ongoing post-election machinations are quite revolting.

Why is it that a vile and corrupt dictatorship is not taking charge as American forces withdraw? This is a pertinent question since foreign invasions, imperialist or otherwise, usually leave behind client dictatorships a la Latin American banana republics, or the South Korean and South Vietnamese dictatorships. The world has changed and mighty America too must now suffer the glare of world public opinion. It is answerable for the outcome in Iraq, a blot on its escutcheon will be intolerable; ditto Afghanistan. The relationship between world opinion and what even the high and mighty can get away with has changed in the last two decades. America cannot, for the sake of its own credibility, leave behind vile dictatorships in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Where one does see vile regimes take root is in so-called sovereign nation states, protected from the glare of world opinion, which contrive to play great powers off against each other. There is a lot of traction in that business; Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burma, North Korea, and so on. The list is long and Lanka too stabilises itself, despite alleged atrocities, by playing the same game. Hence we have the paradox of countries which suffered the horrible misfortune of foreign invasion (over 1.5 million people died due to war in Iraq including the victims of a decade of sanctions) emerging from this hell as relatively more democratic societies, while regimes such as ours use sovereignty to hunt their own people.

Unfortunately there is a more fundamental reason than mere concealment from the outside world. Personalities, JRs, Rajapaksas, Bandaranaikes, governmentalexcess and even the slide to despotism are but surface manifestations of something deeper. I do not want to sound fatalistic but there have been social and ideological processes fermenting in the bowels of our nation for decades of which persons and governments are mere manifestations. The gut process is the surfacing of the petty bourgeois to a location from which it held sway over the state. Disastrously, a chauvinist Sinhala nationalist ideology, which accompanied and underpinned this process, placed ethnic conflict centre stage. The rise of contemporary authoritarianism and these historical processes are inseparable. This is a big topic that I must leave for another day.

What is to be done? First let it sink into our heads that there is a long haul ahead. The slide to dictatorship will drag on for some years; therefore we need to buckle down to a long war of political attrition. This realisation is the first step; second and more important, let it sink in that we must change the ways in which we act.

Stop behaving as if we live in a democratic polity - leave that to suicidal columnists! Watch your step, be careful what you say, to whom, and when, and what, and where.

Know that your phone is tapped; it’s a police state - OK! None of this means shrivelling up in fear; on the contrary it means precisely the opposite, that is, changing our behaviour with even greater determination to salvage our common humanity. Remember old Socrates - he defined courage as “presence of mind”.

© Lakbima News

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