Saturday, February 05, 2005

Déjà vu- The Historical Significance of the Iraqi Elections

With all of the euphoria over the recent Iraqi elections, the question arises as to how historically significant they really are.

Of course, the White House issued a congratulatory statement. (Cynics would call it self-congratulatory, since it was Bush who made the decision to launch “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, and the election was only made possible, or necessary, by that invasion.)

By and large, the press followed suit, and in spite of the violence from those opposed to the U.S. sponsored elections, gave laudatory accounts, and presented the mere holding of the elections as a great victory, and an indicator of the overall success of U.S. policy in Iraq.

But with all of the fulsome praise for the “historic elections”, some members of the subversive news network were skeptical, and made it a point to give an interesting historical perspective. It was pointed out that the US press had previously echoed the claims of the US government regarding other countries’ elections in somewhat similar circumstances.

The account of South Vietnamese elections from the Sept 4, 1967 edition of the New York Times, is worth reading in full.

'U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote’

Peter Grose
The New York Times, Sept 4, 1967, page 2

United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 percent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the national election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.

Pending more detailed reports, neither the State Department nor the White House would comment on the balloting or the victory of the military candidates, Lieut. Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, who was running for president, and Premiere Nguyen Cao Ky, the candidate for vice president.

A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam. The election was the culmination of a constitutional development that began in January, 1966, to which President Johnson gave his personal commitment when he met Premiere Ky and General Thieu, the chief of state in Honolulu in February.

The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon Government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by a military junta.

Few member of that junta are still around, most having been ousted or exiled in subsequent shifts of power.

Significance Not Diminished

The fact that the backing of the electorate has gone to the generals who have been ruling South Vietnam for the last two years does not, in the Administration’s view, diminish the Significance of the constitutional step which has been taken.

The hope here is that the new government will be able to maneuver with a confidence and legitimacy long lasting in South Vietnamese politics. That hope could have been dashed either by a small turnout, indicating widespread scorn or lack of interest in constitutional development, or by the Vietcong’s disruption of the balloting.

American officials had hoped for an 80% turnout. That was the figure in the election in September for the Constituent Assembly. Seventy-eight per cent of the registered voters went to the polls in elections for local officials last spring.

Before the results of the presidential elections started to come in, the American officials warned that the turnout might be less than 80 per cent because the polling places would be open for two or three hours less than in the election a year ago. The turnout of 83 per cent was a welcome surprise. The turnout in the 1964 United States presidential election was 62 per cent.

Captured documents and interrogations indicated in the last week a serious concern among Vietcong leaders that a major effort would be required to render the election meaningless. This effort has not succeeded, judging from the reports from Saigon.

Reflecting upon this particular press report from a previous military misadventure does not automatically lead to the conclusion that holding the elections in Iraq is necessarily a bad thing. But reading the article is downright spooky. One merely needs to substitute the phrases “Iraqi Transitional Government” for “Saigon government”, “Insurgents” (or "Saddam loyalists" or "Islamist fighters" or "anti-Iraq Forces" or whatever is the term du jour) for “Vietcong”, etc.

The similarities are striking, even down to the use of the term “terrorists” to describe the groups trying to disrupt the foreign (US) sponsored election process.

This article may not prove that history repeats itself, but it might lead one to believe that whenever there is a conflict, journalists simply re-publish old articles and substitute new names and places for old ones.

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