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Saddam, the Global Elector

Is the Iraqi dictator powerful enough to influence electoral politics among the great democracies?

September 16, 2002

Is the Iraqi dictator powerful enough to influence electoral politics among the great democracies?

Back in the Middle Ages, most of Western and Central Europe was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was a loosely-knit political entity set up by Charlemagne in the 9th century to unify a myriad of Germanic principalities that sprung up after the collapse of Rome.

Although the Holy Roman emperor had absolute powers in his feudal world, the position itself was elected. The electors were kings and archbishops, their number eventually fixed at seven.

Although their own domains were quite small, they could be quite influential, especially in the 13-15th centuries — when they wielded significant power quite out of proportion to their own little kingdoms and principalities.

Now, move ahead several centuries to the present era. You will find Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ruling a small nation tucked away in the Middle East. True, Iraq sits on massive oil reserves — its proven reserves are the world's second largest after Saudi Arabia's.

However, because of a 12-year United Nations embargo, it has not been able to export anywhere near its full capacity — and its impact on the international oil market remains very small.

Iraq's population is just over 20 million — of which many are malnourished and impoverished because of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule. Others are crippled either by a nasty Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s or the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s.

Saddam's much talked-about army is a weakling. In 1982, it was fought to a less-than-impressive standstill by Iran's revolutionary guards — a rag-tag band of basically brainwashed teenagers marching en masse through minefields. Its defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led international coalition in 1991 was swift and complete.

Saddam's attempts to fire Scud missiles into Israel or Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War were not nearly as effective as he might have hoped. Although Iraq possesses biological weapons that could inflict severe damage on its neighbors, its ability to resist a U.S. invasion will be limited.

Yet, for all these weaknesses, Saddam has been handed a unique opportunity to influence democratic electoral politics among great powers.

Since the U.S. administration revealed its unswerving determination to attack Iraq and bring about regime change in Baghdad, Saddam has already had a noticeable impact on elections in Germany.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who started far behind in opinion polls in the run-up to the German general elections on September 22, has pulled even with Edmund Stoiber, his Christian Democratic challenger — by opposing the U.S. stance on Iraq.

But the greatest chance the Iraqi leader has to influence world politics may come in November. That is when the United States will hold its crucial mid-term elections.

The voting on November 5 will determine who controls the U.S. Congress and, in large measure, will color the second half of President Bush's first term in office.

And this is precisely where Saddam enters into the equation. By maintaining a defiant stance in the run-up to November, the Iraqi dictator will ensure the saber-rattling from Washington intensifies.

Saddam may even face an outright military attack before the U.S. election, even though this appears unlikely at the moment.

This would likely boost support for the wartime president — and play into the hands of the Republicans. Mr. Bush's party could then retain its current majority in the House of Representatives — and recapture the U.S. Senate.

On the other hand, Saddam could comply with the United Nation's request for inspections. He would do so by opening up all the sites where he is suspected to be harboring weapons of mass destruction — which would defuse the crisis.

Such an outcome will probably bolster the Democrats. With the U.S. economy still hustling along at a weak clip and stock markets continuing to sag, U.S. voters may wonder about their President's obsessive focus on Saddam — rather than the economy (or al-Qaeda).

However it turns out, one thing is certain. The Iraqi dictator would not have had such influence over elections in major Western democracies had he not been built up by all the attention focused on him by the Bush Administration.

Alarmingly, in some cases, that kind of influence can endure — and be expanded. In Germany, the electors of Brandenburg in the Middle Ages were able to parley the prestige conferred on them by their position into a much more prominent role in German history.

They eventually built a strong Kingdom of Prussia and a unified Germany. In the process, Prussia defeated the Austria of the Habsburgs, an imperial family that had a virtual monopoly on the imperial throne from the 15th century until the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806.

Back then, the Brandenberg area was considered to be little more than a sandpit — not so different from today's Iraq. Good thing that Saddam's political skills are more limited than those of the Brandenburg electors.