Iraq

DYING TO VOTE

JOHN GEDDES January 17 2005
Iraq

DYING TO VOTE

JOHN GEDDES January 17 2005

DYING TO VOTE

Iraq

JOHN GEDDES

PATRICK BOYER is a veteran of what passes for ballot-box combat in Canada. He was elected as the Conservative MP for a Toronto riding in Brian Mulroney’s 1984 landslide, then defeated when the Tories were all but wiped out under Kim Campbell in 1993. But Boyer recently met some politicians who would view any of his Canadian electoral battles as a walk in the park: members of Iraq’s newly formed parties. He spent a week in Baghdad last month—much of it outside the relative safety of the so-called Green Zone heavily fortified by U.S. forces—helping the Iraqis prepare for their planned Jan. 30 election.

While he was there, three Iraqi election officials were dragged from their car on a busy Baghdad street and shot dead by insurgents trying to derail the vote. No wonder Boyer came home full of admiration for Iraq’s would-be democrats. “Numbers of them are being murdered, both candidates and officials,” he said. “But they’ve got their brochures, they’ve got their websites, they’ve got their campaign posters up.”

Boyer is one of a handful of Canadians with recent first-hand experience of Baghdad’s embryonic democratic political culture. Having declined to join the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein, Ottawa has had little involvement with post-invasion Iraq. The federal government posts just one Foreign Affairs official in the strife-torn country, along with a single RCMP officer. Still, a modest Canadian presence has emerged around the enormously difficult preparations for the election. The first high-profile Canadian engagement came late last month when Elections Canada took on the leadership of an international group that will try to assess the voting. Far less well known are the activities of Canadians working privately with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a Washington-based organization that is in Iraq training election monitors and helping new parties get up and running. It was NDI that took Boyer to

Baghdad from Dec. 15 to 22, along with University of Toronto political science professor David Cameron.

NDI is an independent, non-profit group that promotes democracy around the world. It is aligned with the U.S. Democratic party, accepts funding from the U.S. government, and is a fixture of the Washington political establishment, with many prominent Democrats serving on its board. Perhaps surprisingly, Canadians hold some key NDI positions, particularly when it comes to its activities in Iraq. The institute’s director of programs in the Middle East and North Africa is Leslie Campbell, a veteran New Democratic Party strategist who served as Audrey McLaughlin’s chief of staff when she was NDP leader. And NDI’s resident senior country director in Iraq is James LeBlanc, who was chief of staff to Barbara McDougall when she was Mulroney’s minister of external affairs.

Campbell estimates there are more than two dozen more Canadians on NDI’s staff, and says the group has taken a steady, though entirely unpublicized, stream of current and former Canadian politicians and party organizers to Iraq since Saddam’s fall. The Canadians have worked with Iraqis who are trying to establish democratic parties and government institutions. “We’re people who love politics, love government,” Campbell said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem

last week, where he was helping monitor the Palestinian election. “With NDI, we get to go to places like Iraq to pursue what we love anyway.”

Boyer has worked before on politicalreform projects in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, but he says the Iraq experience was unique. He was approached because of his combination of hands-on political

Despite the dangers, Iraqis are struggling for democracy—with Canadian help

experience and a background teaching politics and law at several Canadian universities over the past decade. Many of the themes at play in Iraq fit with his interests, but he was daunted by the danger involved in actually visiting Baghdad. “Before I went, friends of mine were calling and saying, ‘How insane are you?’ ” he says. “I could have

found lots of excuses to say no. But I think I would have gone through the rest of my life as a hollow man. I talk a lot about democracy, but nobody runs the risk of being killed for that here.” In Baghdad, he travelled in an armoured vehicle, wore a bulletproof vest, and was protected by a private security detail made up of former members of the

French Foreign Legion and South Africa’s security service. He helped run workshops for three of the new Iraqi parties, and also took part in discussions on constitutional issues with senior officials in Iraq’s interim government.

Political science professor Cameron says he was asked to go to Iraq because of his expertise in federalism. Iraqis are debating how much regional autonomy to build into their system, and Cameron says the Canadian model, particularly Quebec’s position, is of special interest. “We did a Federalism 101 routine for 50 or 60 party activists,” he said. But the nuances of the Iraqi debate on federalism clearly made less of an impression on Cameron than the sheer guts it took for those party members to attend the session. Merely participating can make an Iraqi a target. “It’s very humbling,” Cameron said, “to see the countless minor acts of courage on the part of people who are trying to seize something out of the mess Iraq is in.” Despite the daily accounts of terror attacks meant to prevent the election, Cameron says his brief experience in Baghdad made him more optimistic about Iraq’s future. “The only way the insurgency is going to be put down is by the Iraqis themselves, not by the Americans,” he said. “And for that to happen, there has to be an elected Iraqi government.”

None of the Canadians involved in Iraq is under any illusion that the road ahead can be anything but treacherous. For all that he admires Iraq’s start-up democrats, Boyer acknowledges that the ruthless groups opposing them could still prevail. “This could be a descending spiral where everything disintegrates, or it could start to come up and improve,” he said. Whatever the outcome, he will be among the few Canadians with a first-hand tale to tell about how democracy fared in a dangerous place at a defining moment. 171