The Afghan, El Salvador, and Iraq Elections

U.S. managed elections, with the threat of violence,
are called "democratic"

by Edward S. Herman

Z magazine, December 2004


During the October 5 vice presidential debate, in lauding the Afghan election, Vice President Dick Cheney stated, "Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had hal guerrilla insurgency [that] controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress. The human drive for freedom, the determination of these people to vote, was unbelievable. The terrorists would come in and shoot up polling places; as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get in line and would not be denied the right to vote."

Cheney failed to mention that the postwar UN-sponsored Salvadoran Truth Commission found that over 90 percent of those 75,000 dead were civilians killed by the U.S.-sponsored army and paramilitaries, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero and the six U.S. religious women in 1980, and the six distinguished Jesuit intellectuals (and their housekeeper and her daughter) in 1989. The people apparently voted eagerly for the leaders of these murderers and thugs.

Cheney also neglects mentioning that the "determination of these people to vote" was helped along by voting being legally required, with the public repeatedly warned of this requirement, and the fulfillment of this legal requirement recorded on ID cards that could be demanded by the police. There were also transparent plastic voting boxes used in the Salvadoran elections through which a ballot's content could be observed. Given the security forces' willingness to kill and their regular placement of mutilated bodies for public educational display, the public's eagerness to vote was quite believable. Cheney also failed to note that when asked why they voted, people in voting lines said that their main objective was to obtain peace-but no peace candidates were on the ballot and the effect of the Salvadoran elections in both 1982 and 1984 was to clear the ground for further war. (This was also true in Vietnam, where U.S.-sponsored elections in 1966 and 1967 were also designed to clear the ground for war with an assured election victory for a U.S.-imposed military junta, but where voters expressed primary interest in bringing about peace.)

It was the central thrust of the official propaganda barrage that the people in El Salvador (and Vietnam) were eager to vote and that, with the leftist opposition hostile to this supposedly democratic exercise and allegedly trying to disrupt it, a heavy turnout and large vote could be interpreted as a victory for the ruling military juntas (and U.S. policy support of these leaders). Cheney regurgitates this formula, including the claim that "terrorists" strove to "shoot up polling places." This is straightforward disinformation, as there was no shooting up of polling places in either El Salvador or Vietnam during these elections.

In speaking of the "free elections" held in El Salvador, Cheney does not mention that the left did not offer candidates and couldn't do so because all their leaders who had not been murdered were on a 138 person army death list. He also failed to mention that the two dissident newspapers in El Salvador had been eliminated by threats, physical destruction of facilities, and outright murder; that intermediate organizations like unions and independent political groupings had been dismantled; that there was no freedom of assembly or speech; and that state terror was rampant and had traumatized the population. In short, not one of the conditions of a free election was met in El Salvador's "free elections"

Note Cheney's acknowledgment that "we" held those free elections, not the Salvadorans. This, plus the fact that they were not "free" but stacked to assure a victory of the war party, suggests a not very hidden purpose in running them-namely, to mobilize support back home for the intervention in favor of a military solution and a "death squad democracy." This was a perfect illustration of a "demonstration election."

Cheney's recent repetition of lies and misrepresentations on the Salvadoran election has not been corrected or criticized by the mainstream media, in large measure because they followed the same propaganda line during the election periods in El Salvador, and during the farces in Vietnam as well, where the military juntas regularly acknowledged that they couldn't compete with the National Liberation Front (NLF) "on a purely political basis" (NYT, Oct. 24, 1966). The media consistently focused on turnout, without mentioning the associated coercion package and they essentially ignored the fact that the left and any peace candidates were unable to run and that state terror was rampant. Whereas, in dealing with the Sandinista election of 1984 that threatened to legitimize a government under U.S. attack, little or no attention was paid to turnout and a great deal of attention and indignation focused on the voluntary withdrawal from the election of an opposition candidate, who happened to be on the CIA payroll. Adhering closely to their real societal function of supporting establishment initiatives, the papers found the Salvadoran elections "steps toward democracy" whereas the far more honest Sandinista election was declared a "farce" (NYT). Nowhere was it suggested that the Salvadoran and Vietnam elec- tions were purely public relations efforts designed to clear the ground for war.

It is an enlightening microcosm of how a propaganda system works that in 1982 the New York Times never mentioned the 138-person army death list, which made it so very clear that the left could not participate in that election, but the Times did refer to that list in 1989 when the left made a tentative electoral entry, where the mention would put the El Salvador regime in a more favorable light (Lindsey Gruson, "A Fingerhold for Dissent in El Salvador," NIT, March 17, 1989)-a pretty illustration of Orwell's notion of Big Brother's media's ability "To forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment it was needed."

The Afghan election has its own special features, as does the prospective January 2005 election in Iraq, but they both have basic public-relations and demonstration-for-the-home-market characteristics and neither can properly be called "free elections." The mainstream media have openly acknowledged that the timing of both has been geared to the needs of the Bush election campaign, neither being postponable for reasons of the detrimental effect on that campaign, as each election will demonstrate democracy in action and "liberation" of the formerly oppressed people. The fact that the United States is able to fix the timing of these elections to meet the political demands of its leaders doesn't strike the media as compromising or suggestive of deeper limits to the meaning of these exercises.

What makes these elections unfree is not so much the technical failures and fraud in the use of the electoral machinery, sometimes substantial, as the fact that each election is being imposed from without by a party with an axe to grind and does not come from indigenous sources. Its source is the needs of a superpower that occupies these countries militarily and uses that military as well as economic leverage now, as it has in the past, to shape the electoral process in accord with its interests and agenda. Its shaping is sometimes extremely crude. In the case of Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, the United States was fighting the NLF, which was admitted by U.S. officials to be the only mass-based party in South Vietnam, so its exclusion was obvious and essential for U.S. purposes, but clearly made the election meaningless. The United States also warred against and seriously weakened the Buddhist church movement, the second largest constituency organization in the South. Under U.S. direction two dissidents who might have drawn substantial votes were excluded from candidacy, assuring that the military leaders of U.S. choice would win the election. These gross violations of the basics of a free election-and there were others-did not cause the New York Times (etc.) to call the election a sham. The media were impressed by the eagerness of the Vietnamese peasants to cast their vote for the U. S. -chosen military leaders.

In El Salvador, the election winner was U.S.-approved and received U.S. financial as well as military support. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas eventually lost an election in 1990 with the crucial help of the United States, which had carried out a crushing war of terrorism against them, along with a boycott that extended to preventing any World Bank or other aid; helped the opposition parties financially and strategically, got them to coalesce behind one candidate; and openly threatened that if the U.S. -supported candidate did not win the election the war and boycott would continue. The "free" press never noticed that this was straight-forward blackmail as well as crude interventionism in other respects.

There seems to be no limit to what the media will swallow, both in approving U.S. -staged elections that are laughably fraudulent and assailing elections by U.S. targets that might interfere with U.S. destabilization efforts.

Afghan Ratification-of-Conquest

In evaluating the Afghan election, we must start here also with the fact of an imported and imposed election project, a military occupation and financial dependency, and of a Kabul leadership hand-picked by the United States, headed by President Hamid Karzai, a former employee of a U.S. oil company. He won the current election because he had U.S. resources behind him and Afghanis know that this assured his victory. He also had the UN and "international community" cooperating in this enterprise, with the UN participating in a Joint Electoral Management Body overseeing the process, and Kofi Annan congratulating the Afghanis on their "patience, resilience and civic maturity," and their determination "to take charge of the affairs of their country" ("Hailing Afghans' patience, civic maturity, Annan says poll probe will bring gains," UN News Center, Oct. 12, 2004). How they will "take charge of the affairs" of Afghanistan by approving the U.S. choice of leader he failed to explain. Kofi Annan continues to be a near-perfect spokesperson for the U.S. projection of power abroad by violence, even with his occasional whimperings at "illegal" actions, whose results he continues to accept and protect. This is why he has lasted so long when less cooperative and more principled people like Boutros-Boutros Ghali and Mary Robinson were ousted.

Some Afghans believe that because Karzai is the choice of the dominant external power in a process validated by the U.S.' s international community collaborators, he represents the best practical hope of peace and development. The United States has the power to crush the warlords and pacify the country and it has the resources and know-how to contribute to development. Voting for the U.S. candidate thus represents for some an expression of hope and a recognition of the reality of U.S. political control and perhaps a fear of how the United States might react to a vote of rejection. Whether any hopes will be realized is doubtful, given the U.S. record of hit-and-run, unwillingness to spend externally except to kill and facilitate killing, as well as the special difficulties faced in Afghanistan. But this can hardly be said to constitute a free election, given the lack of public information and national debate on the major issues and candidates, the absence of meaningful electoral options, the continuing power of the warlords, and the overwhelming fact of military occupation and control. It represents instead ratification of conquest and the new client and dependency status of Afghanistan.

As in the past, and with great reliability, the mainstream media have found the conquest-ratifying-election sponsored by their own leaders a gratifying "step toward democracy." Once again the media are touched by the large turnout, the long lines of eager voters, their courage in the face of intimidation, "offering their faith in a democratic future" (editorial, "Afghanistan Votes," NYT, Oct. 12, 2004). As usual, there was that "violence threatened by the Taliban," that failed to stop the enthusiastic voters (Carlotta Gall and David Rohde, "Assessing the Afghan Election," NIT, Oct. 20). That they may have voted out of fear and intimidation by local elites or loyalty to local leaders, or out of recognition of inevitable rule by a foreign proxy with no other options available are not entertainable thoughts in a well-working propaganda system. (Large turnouts and long voter lines in Nicaragua in 1984 were, by the inverted propaganda demand of the state, neither courageous nor an expression of "faith in a democratic future," but a "sham" based on deception, coercion, and other ills; and the large turnout for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in the 2004 referendum was also never seen in the media as an "expression of faith in a democratic future.")

Theft-Rationalization Election

The election in Iraq, if actually held in January 2005, will also not be a free election in any meaningful sense. A truly free election would result in the ouster of U.S. forces and bases and a repudiation of the numerous contracts with friends of the Bush administration, as well as the string of de facto laws ("Orders") and rules imposed by the U.S. like tax policies, open-door rights to foreign companies, and exemptions of foreigners from the rule of law that serve U.S., but not Iraqi interests. But the occupation forces will prevent this, unless they are driven out of the country or the costs of pacification are so great that, as in Vietnam, there is a voluntary exit based on compelling political pressures and/or a negative calculus of the costs and benefits to the occupying power.

The Bush administration clearly did not invade and occupy Iraq to give the Iraqis free choice and a free election that would do that was never in the running. From the outset, the Bush administration made Iraq an "appointocracy," with first a U.S. handpicked Coalition Provisional Authority, devoid of authority, then an Interim Government, headed by former CIA asset Ayad Allawi, again powerless and a front for U.S. policy and actions during the leadup to the supposed "free election." The Administration needed lots of time to put in place "reforms" that would restructure the Iraqi economy via privatization, deregulation, open door policies on trade and investment, and other institutional changes, so it needed purely nominal Iraqi governments during that period (see Greg Palast's "Moving the Iraqi Economy from Recovery to Growth,"

Thus, the January 2005 election, if it takes place, cannot be free, given Bush administration ends, the structure of power in an Iraq under military occupation, the rules already put in place and other changes that "99 percent of the Iraqi people wouldn't vote for," the control of the media, the almost certain manipulation of election processes-Bremer's Orders 91 and 97 already exclude members of "illegal militias" from public office and rule out participation in the election by any parties that "preach hatred" or support "terrorism," all to be determined by a U.S. -organized electoral commission-and the ongoing death-dealing and pacification policies of the occupying power.

As in past U.S. election interventions, it is now reported that U.S. officials are also attempting to get their client candidates to present a single slate (Ashrat Khalil and Paul Richter, "U.S. Is Said to Urge Its Iraqi Allies to Unite for Election," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 2004) and we can be sure money is flowing into the campaigns of these clients

The insistence of the United States that their own man Allawi be nominal head of state in the run-up to the January election, overruling UN representative Lakhdar Brahmini' s choice and therefore precluding any but a purely nominal UN role, was a giveaway as to U.S. intentions. So was the desperate U.S. struggle to avoid a popular vote for the interim government. So was the U.S. refusal to accept the introduction of UN-controlled military forces, which might have made more difficult whatever level of violence the U.S. chooses to carry out to assure a proper election outcome. Allawi can be counted on to approve anything, as he is a puppet as amenable as Generals Ky and Thieu in South Vietnam, who were quite prepared for the United States to ravage their country with Agent Orange, napalm, cluster bombs, endless B-52 raids on "suspected Vietcong villages," etc., in a virtual genocidal process.

The prospect for the January election is that it will be held, if at all, following still further intensified pacification efforts by the United States. This will be important for Bush's future imperial plans to win this victory, at no matter what cost to Iraq's civil society and future welfare. To keep U.S. casualties acceptably low, the emphasis will continue to be on bombing raids and helicopter attacks and the seizure and killing of dissidents, along with the usual and built-in massive "collateral damage." (On the imminent assault on Fallujah, see Patrick Graham's "Falluja In Their Sights Again: As soon as British troops are redeployed, the US will again turn the city into a bloodbath," The Guardian, Oct. 23, 2004; also, George Galloway, "Free Iraq: Troops Out Now," www. uruknet. info).

The Vietnam elections of 1966 and 1967 demonstrated that you can hold elections under conditions of extreme violence and massacre. Those elections also demonstrated that the media will swallow them as legitimate even under the most grotesque conditions. In Iraq, under grotesque conditions of occupation following plain aggression that even Kofi Annan has plaintively identified as "illegal"-he could never use a word like aggression in regard to his masters-with the occupying power quickly installing a regime of torture, completely failing to carry out its responsibilities as an occupying power, creating a series of puppet governments as fronts, its failures plus indiscriminate violence helping produce a country-wide insurgency, it now proposes to hold a Bush-convenient election under managed conditions, with the UN once again cooperating and providing a moral cover for this travesty, and the media taking it very seriously.

The New York Times has had an ambivalent position on dealing with the insurgency in the run-up to the election. It has claimed that the main condition for "progress toward democratic government and the only hope of meaningful elections depends on greater progress in quelling the insurgency" (editorial, "Iraq's Disappearing Election," Sept. 26, 2004). That is just what the Bush team wants to hear: the premise is that holding this U.S. -organized and controlled election is a positive step, and may lead to democracy and that stepped up military violence ("quelling") is the proper route.

On the other hand, in a followup, while standing by their view of the positive role of the election, the editors attacked the view that the planned "all-out assault on Fallujah" was a proper approach, arguing for a "middle path" between an urban war and letting the insurgency control cities ("Flattening the Vote in Fallujah," October 27). This calls for selective killing and a new round of negotiations and a greater role for the UN.

The notion that aggression is not acceptable, that the aggression and occupation produced the insurgency, which is a legitimate and understandable response to aggression and an extremely abusive occupation, and that the aggressor has no legal or moral right to further manage Iraq's affairs-now by escalated further massacre-is outside the orbit of thought for an establishment newspaper.

The prospect, then, is that the United States will create a desert, hold a staged election in the rubble, and call it a creditable "step toward democracy." The media, who have no shame, will agree, while regretting the "collateral damage."


Edward S. Herman is a media critic and author of numerous books and articles.

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