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The Second National Opinion Poll in Iraq
JNV Anti-War Briefing 57 (23 March 2004)

The majority of Iraqi people are desperate for national elections to institute a new democratically-elected government. When confronted with a wide variety of possible political arrangements in a national poll partly-sponsored by the BBC, 72.2% of Iraqis strongly agreed that there should be an Iraqi democracy, while a further 13.7% agreed somewhat, making ‘democracy’ the most popular choice.

When asked by Oxford Research International in Feb. 2004 to choose between just three political options, 48.5% of Iraqis chose ‘democracy’, 27.5% went for a ‘strong leader’, and only 20.5% for an ‘Islamic state’. When asked who should be in charge, 55.3% of Iraqis said the country should be run by ‘democrats’; 27.3% said by a ‘strong leader’; and only 13.7% said by ‘religious politicians’. (Full results of the ORI/BBC poll are available in pdf format from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3514504.stm.)

The polls have shifted around a bit on this issue since Apr. 2003. A poll in Baghdad in July 2003, carried out for the Spectator and Channel 4 News, found that the most favoured political set-up was ‘British/American style democracy with various political parties competing openly for power’ at 36% (the only other real contender was ‘Islamic rule, but tempered to modern ideals of justice and punishment’ at 26%). (Excel database available from http://www.channel4.com/news/2003/07/week_3/16_poll.html.)

Then in Aug. 2003, in a poll outside Baghdad, while 38.2% of Iraqis polled said democracy could work well in Iraq, 50.2% said ‘democracy is a western way of doing things and it will not work here.’ (FT, 11 Sept., p.11) However, the first national opinion poll, carried out by ORI, found that ‘90.3 per cent of interviewees said they somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that the country needed an Iraqi democracy.’ (AP, 2 Dec. 2003)

However one interprets the earlier results, democracy seems to have had some resounding support in the Feb. 2004 ORI/BBC survey. This isn’t how everyone sees it, though.

Commenting on the ORI findings, ‘Dr Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute said that the Iraqis wanted a strong leader, but had not found one yet: “The main point is that the Iraqis are now looking for a strong leader who can save the day”.’ (‘Survey finds hope in occupied Iraq’, BBC News Online, 16 Mar.)

How can you conclude this is the ‘main point’? By ignoring the findings on democracy, and looking only at the level of support for ‘a strong leader’. The ORI/BBC poll found that while 72.2% of Iraqis strongly wanted democracy, 66.5% strongly wanted a (single) strong Iraqi leader. With another 14.6% ‘somewhat’ desiring this, the total in favour of a single strong leader was 81.1%, just 4.8% behind democracy.

Which means that the vast majority of Iraqis are in favour of both democracy and a single strong leader. (Interestingly, the idea of a group of strong Iraqi leaders received much less support: 23.9% strongly and 29.1% somewhat in favour, total 53% support.)

Things begin to get clearer, perhaps, when you consider the differences between the answers to questions about ‘what is needed in twelve months’, and ‘what is needed in five years’.

In a year’s time, democracy is favoured by only 28% of respondents, almost half the figure for ‘a single strong leader’ (46.6%). In five years’ time, however, support for democracy shoots up to 41.6%, to only 31.5% for ‘a single strong leader’.

When the democrats were asked why they supported the idea of democracy in five years’ time, only one answer got more than 10% support: because democracy ‘guarantees freedom’. When the autocrats were asked the same question, there were three answers that got more than 10% support: ‘To take control of the country’ (24.7%); ‘He guarantees security/peace’ (17.8%); and ‘He provides unity’ (11.7%).

This suggests an underlying desire for democracy and freedom, coupled with a deep insecurity, which together create a contradictory support for both democracy and authoritarianism.

There is a strong underlying desire for democracy, however.

When asked to choose their preferred mix of political system and political actors (the people who make the system run), the strongest support was for ‘democracy run by democrats’: 41.8% against 18.8% for a ‘strong leader [set-up] run by strong leader’.

It should be made clear that the ‘support for a strong leader’ is not the same as ‘support for Saddam Hussein’. In July 2003, the Spectator/C4 poll found only 5% of people wanted their old leader back. In the Feb. 2004 ORI/BBC poll, when asked which Iraqi national leader they trusted, only 3.3% opted for Saddam, and only 1.7% said they would vote for his Ba’ath Party in elections.

One reason why democracy may have been seen as a ‘Western’ idea that would not work in Iraq may be its ‘multi-party’ nature. This doesn’t seem highly favoured. When asked in Feb. 2004 what the most important aspect of democracy was, the top two answers were: freedom (34.2%) and fair elections (7.4%).

When asked what the three most important aspects of democracy were, ‘multi-party system’ was barely mentioned: it never got more than 1% support. 75.3% of people said they would ‘never’ join a political party or action group.

There was great distrust of the political parties: 7.1% had a great deal of confidence in them; 20.7% had some confidence, but 25.4% had not very much confidence in them, and 35.7% had no confidence in political parties at all.

In the previous national ORI poll in Nov. 2003, ‘only around a fifth of Iraqis questioned said they trust political parties… Some 71 per cent of respondents declined to mention any party they would vote for, while those who did mentioned 38 different political parties.’ (news.com.au, 2 Dec.) This time, while distrust stayed at the same level, the percentage of people declining to mention any party they would vote for had dropped to 58%.

The Feb. 2004 ORI/BBC poll confirms once again that the majority of the Iraqi people do not want clerical rule. The Iraqi people have great confidence in their religious leaders, but they do not want them to hold power.

Iraqis had more confidence in their religious leaders than any other group in Iraq. 42.4% had a great deal of confidence in their religious leaders, compared to 11.3% for the Governing Council, and 7.9% for the US/UK occupation forces.

But when they were asked who should take care of various pressing issues (rebuilding the infrastructure, regaining public security and so on), ‘religious leaders’ got very little support – the highest figure was 4.4% for helping to ensure that elections were held. Even on the issue of ensuring that religious rules are followed, ‘religious leaders’ were entrusted with this authority by only 26% of people.

True, when they were asked whether they supported or opposed the idea of a religiously-led government, 53.2% of people supported it (27.4% strongly), compared to 44.5% support for the Governing Council and 85.9% for democracy.

But when asked to choose between religious rule, democracy and authoritarian rule over the next year or the next five years, religious rule received the support of only 10.4 or 9.8% of people, compared to 28 or 41.6% support for democracy.


‘[T]he past year has shown that Iraq’s vision of democracy and the projection of American power do not necessarily coexist. The most glaring illustration is in Iraq itself, where the US has been resisting early elections out of fear that radicals, whether Shia or Sunni, would make gains.’ (Roula Khalaf, FT, 23 Mar., p. 21)

The US had plans for selecting an interim government that even the Telegraph described as ‘far from democratic’ (see Bfg 51 for details). Now the interim government may be simply appointed. (AP, 21 Mar.)

Iraq is hungry for democracy. The US has little appetite for such dangerous fare.

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