Politics as usual is a victory after Iraqi elections

Even the apparent electoral success of the followers of Muqtada al Sadr feels like grounds for some applause.

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It could take weeks before we know the final results of Iraq's March 7 elections, but already there are plenty of reasons for a cheer (or two). For one thing, the election's sheer ordinariness has been heartening. The vote came off as scheduled and, as we expected, voting day in Iraq was eclipsed by an event thousands of miles away - the Oscars. This public indifference in much of rest of the world, deplorable under most circumstances, felt like a strange sort of victory, given Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the US occupation and other catastrophes that have recently beset Iraq.

There is another reason for cheer, too: Iraq's elections have featured the same banalities and clichés that mark elections everywhere. On election day, we saw voters' purple thumbs raised in triumph, no doubt at the bidding of photographers hovering around polling places. Now, as speculation about voting results mounts, we watch as media advisers for Iraqi politicians scramble to spin reporters - a sight that elsewhere might be proof positive of what's wrong with modern politics but seems reassuring in Iraq. As methods of persuasion go, it beats a gun, an explosives vest or Saddam and his henchmen.

Even the apparent electoral success of the followers of Muqtada al Sadr, a radical cleric who led the anti-American Shiite insurgency, feels like grounds for some applause. With about 80 per cent of the vote counted, neither the former prime minister Iyad Allawi nor the incumbent Nouri al Maliki has a commanding lead, but Mr al Sadr's supporters appear poised to win a king-making 40 seats in the 325-member Parliament.

Critics of the Sadrists might find their re-emergence alarming, but it may represent the proverbial grey-cloud-with-a-silver-lining. It shows the Sadrists could be on their way towards a full embrace of the rough-and-tumble political process now evolving in Iraq. Not everything about Iraq is rosy, certainly. The days ahead may yet prove grim. The country is still bristling with weapons and ordnance, along with people willing to use them.

Naturally, families of the 15 dead from bombings this week will find paeans to elections empty, as well they should. Their grief is a reminder that ensuring security will be the ultimate litmus test of successful elections. Furthermore, lest we need reminding, elections do not a democracy make. Ali Allawi, a former defence minister, recently described Iraq's political landscape as a "minimalist" democracy built around a "new class" of 500 to 600 politicians.

The region has seen this political arrangement before, Mr Allawi said, in Egypt and Iraq during the British period last century. Then, the elites learned to play party politics, too, but not to meet people's needs. "That ended in tears," he said. Mr Allawi's warning, however, shouldn't detract completely from Iraq's achievement. After paying an incalculable price in blood and treasure, Iraqis have made their voices heard at the ballot box. Thus with each passing day, Iraq is a country that more truly belongs - for good and ill - to its people. And that, in the end, is the only thing that matters.