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Opinion

Democracy not without sacrifices

Jeff Fischer Special to the Washington Post

BAGHDAD, Iraq — One morning in late August 1999, Alvaro, a driver for the election unit of the U.N. Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) came into my office crying. “They broke my house last night,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant. “They broke my house,” he repeated. I soon came to understand that the Indonesian-supported militia had broken into his house and wrecked it because he worked for the U.N. mission that was organizing the independence referendum for East Timor. Alvaro was my friend.

I served as chief electoral officer for the referendum, or “popular consultation,” as it was officially called. Carlos Valenzuela was my deputy. After the election, thousands of people were killed and thousands more displaced by the militia fighters and their Indonesian military masters. To my knowledge, this election was marked by the largest loss of life in history — far larger than Iraq’s so far, in numbers and percentage of the total population.

Now Carlos and I are in Baghdad. Carlos is the chief of the international assistance team and the U.N. representative on the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. I am serving as one of his advisers. We face a challenge here similar to what we experienced in East Timor — to demonstrate that an election is the alternative to violence as a means of achieving a democratic goal.

Here, as in East Timor, we have had to confront the question of how an electoral process could unfold in such a violent environment. How could people exercise their free political will under such oppression?

The violence in East Timor reached a boiling point on July 4, 1999, when a humanitarian convoy, with a U.N. car in the lead, was attacked in the city of Liquica, a militia stronghold. After this attack, in which several aid workers were wounded, the head of the UNAMET mission, Ian Martin, called his senior staff together and asked whether we recommended proceeding with the election.

We recommended that the referendum not proceed because the violence was simply too great. He conveyed those sentiments to the U.N. Secretariat in New York. But the advice was rejected in New York, and we were instructed to proceed.

When the pro-independence forces, the National Council of Timorese Resistance, heard that UNAMET had recommended halting the election, they were incensed. It was they, not UNAMET, who were taking the hits and making the sacrifices. The Timorese had struggled since the early 1970s to reach this moment; hundreds of thousands of them had died from conflict, disease and starvation at the hands of their Indonesian occupiers. The May 5 agreement on the referendum had been a product of years of negotiation among the United Nations and the governments of Portugal and Indonesia. How could UNAMET seek to stop the process when independence was, in principle, just six weeks away?

The referendum did proceed and the Democratic Republic of East Timor emerged as the world’s newest nation. The Timorese are respected for their sacrifice, valor and tenacity.

The violence surrounding the Iraqi elections has created a similar crisis of conscience. There has been considerable public debate over whether the elections should be stopped for security reasons. Election workers and political party offices have been attacked. But even though some election workers have resigned, hundreds of political parties have formed, thousands of candidates are standing for office and millions of voters will be casting their ballots for a transitional national assembly on Sunday. More than 40 domestic monitoring groups — students, women, religious figures and professionals — have accredited over 3,000 election observers. Forty-two political parties have accredited more than 7,000 party agents to monitor the polls.

These measures are not simply numerical indicators of support but evidence of an Iraqi political will affirming that the elections must proceed. Just as the Timorese in 1999 showed valor in the face of conflict, Iraqis are showing their courage and the supremacy of the political process over violence.

For Iraq, as for East Timor, there are broken houses on democracy’s road. I will not forget the sacrifice of people such as Alvaro and the commitment to democracy that their sacrifices represent.

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