President Bush, who has seen Iraq erupt in almost daily violence in recent months, could emerge as a big victor of Iraqi elections that could shore up his position both at home and abroad, analysts said on Monday.
“In the short-term, this is very good for an administration just beginning its second term,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“With the State of the Union Address coming on Wednesday, Bush is going to feel energized by this election and that energy will communicate itself to the people watching. It may even inject extra momentum into Bush’s domestic programs,” Jillson said.
Pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center agreed that in the short term, the election will help Bush. “People respond to optimism. They like to think we’re making progress and this allows Bush to make that case,” he said.
Iraqi electoral officials estimate around eight million, out of an electorate of some 15 million, turned out to vote on Sunday, confounding predictions many would be scared away by insurgent threats of a bloodbath.
Even staunch U.S. opponents of Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation said the president had scored a considerable political victory, even though its effects might be short-lived.
“It’s a huge propaganda victory for Bush. He’s probably the biggest victor of the Iraqi elections, more so possibly than any of the actual candidates,” said Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think-tank.
U.S. television stations showed images of Iraqis lining up enthusiastically to cast their ballots and celebrating afterwards. However, the turnout appeared to be low in Sunni Arab areas where the insurgency is strongest.
“U.S. news reports largely ignored the significant divisions that still exist in Iraq so it would be no surprise that in the short-run, the election is a plus for Bush,” said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman who now runs the anti-war organization Win Without War.
Public support for Bush’s Iraq policy has been slowly eroding over recent months, with the U.S. death toll over 1,400 and the war costing more than $1 billion a week. A Zogby poll two weeks ago found 52 percent of Americans felt the war was not worth the loss of American lives and that included 22 percent of Republicans, the highest figure for eight months.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 54 percent of respondents favored leaving U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation there was stable with 41 percent calling for the troops to come home immediately.
That deterioration will now likely be reversed, at least in the short term, said pollster John Zogby.
However, the election could also result in focusing U.S. public opinion more on an exit strategy. “You will hear more and more people saying that the Iraqis have had their election; now let’s get our troops home,” Zogby said.
“Bush will get a bump in the polls but not a large one because the country remains so split and there is a substantial number of Americans who won’t give him good marks on anything, no matter what,” he said.
The election is likely to help Bush’s standing with some of the western European governments that opposed the war but now appear anxious to mend fences with Washington, said Georgetown University political scientist Steven Wayne. Bush will be visiting Europe next month.
“It gives him breathing space at home and also with the Europeans. In the Arab world, it will not wipe out anger at the United States but it provides a beacon of hope,” he said.
Added to the recent successful election in the Palestinian authority, Bush will argue in his speech to the nation on Wednesday that democracy is gathering strength in the Middle East just as he predicted it would. Spreading democracy was a central theme of Bush’s inaugural speech earlier this month.
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