(Note: This post first appeared in a slightly altered form on Say Anything. Click here to read the post in it's original form.)
The Iraqi elections are coming up tomorrow, and I've been thinking for a couple days about writing a post about it. It hasn't been easy, as I've read numerous blogs and newspaper articles about it, and I wasn't sure if there was anything that hadn't already been said: this is an important election for Iraqis; it will determine whether Iraq continues down the path towards democracy or slides back towards religious sectarianism; Sunnis are restless because so many of their candidates were blacklisted by the election council. It's not that I don't think the election is newsworthy; quite the opposite.
So as I struggled with what to say it occurred to me how things have changed in the past seven years. Whatever happens in this election, we know Saddam Hussein (remember him?) won't lead the balloting. A bloodthirsty, murdering tyrant won't be at the helm. The fretting over whether a secular or religious slate will win pales in comparison to the Iraq of seven years ago. No slate will garner 95% of the vote the way Saddam did in the dark days of his reign, and that's a good thing.
In the aftermath of the invasion, when sectarian violence threatened to tear Iraq apart and the media was breathlessly waiting (some would say hoping) for civil war to break out, it looked like the grand aspirations for the country were misplaced. That for all our good intentions, nothing would really change.
Contrast that with today: Sunni leaders are calling for calm and restraint tomorrow. More, they are calling for Sunnis to vote tomorrow, arguing that by refusing to participate they will only be weakening themselves more. The candidate slates made up of hardline Islamicists are expected to fare poorly. The promises being made by the candidates fall under the aegis of running government more efficently, providing more jobs and improving security. In the last election it revolved around rebuilding the country, finding ways to get the power back on and battling a strong and deeply rooted insurgency. That is progress.
There have been rumblings that violence will ensue in the aftermath of the voting, fueled by supporters of losing candidates and disgruntled Sunnis who feel they are being squeezed out of the power structure. Incidents may very well happen, and that will be a shame. Hopefully those incidents are few in number and small in scope. Those incidents, if they occur, should not overshadow the changes that have taken place in Iraq in the last seven years.
This is not to say the journey from totalitarian state to democratic stronghold is complete, or even nearly over. There is still a long way to go. Corruption and sectarianism still prevail in many quarters. Violence still erupts. Outside influences still work to derail the effort. But none of those issues have succeeded yet, and with each day that passes their ability to do so wanes a little bit more.
I remember how the purple finger came to be a point of pride in Iraqis and a symbol of the hope they had in their new democratic experiment. Purple fingers will appear in large numbers tomorrow (and indeed already have; police and the military have already voted in order to provide security for polling places). While those stained appendages still represent the possibility of the future, we, as outsiders watching from afar, should stop and realize that they also represent how far the Iraqis have come.
Some other takes on the election: