The spread of democracy throughout the world is one of the defining narratives of the post-war period. It promises many benefits and is a challenge to the international community. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a crucible for the struggle between democracy and freedom and the forces of totalitarianism and terrorism.
Less than 900 days after the people of Iraq were forced to endorse Saddam Hussein as their president, the remarkable turnout in the Iraqi election has shown that when people are free to choose they choose freedom. It has also demolished the claim that the Middle East isn't ready for democracy, or that Arabs - or all Muslims - aren't really keen on democracy. Instead, we now have great cause for hope that the commonsense of freedom can be the common practice of many.
Iraqis have shown extraordinary courage in the face of an unprecedented campaign of terror to prevent them from exercising their democratic right to vote. They have stood their ground against the murderous zealots and terrorists who would prefer Iraq descend into a bloodbath rather than embark on a process that will lead to Iraqis controlling their own destiny. An enormous step has been taken. For the first time in more than four decades, Iraqis had the opportunity to have their say in their future.
The naysayers argued that the election would lack legitimacy if voter turnout was less than 50 per cent (a curious benchmark given that in many democracies voter turnout is often barely 50 per cent). Turnout exceeded expectations. Even in the Sunni triangle, an area subjected to the worst levels of violence and intimidation, the turnout in some areas was better than expected. It would be churlish in the extreme for critics to claim the election was not representative given the oppressive brutal regime Iraqis toiled under for 40-odd years.
Much of the success of the elections must be attributed to the Iraqi electoral authorities, who, with assistance from the UN, put in place a framework for the election in a remarkably short period and under extremely arduous conditions. The number of polling centres that opened was more than 5,000, only slightly less than the intended number.
The International Mission for Iraqi Elections in its preliminary report has praised the Iraqi electoral commission for its independence and the extent and quality of its planning. In all polling stations there were local observers from governmental and non-governmental organisations, and representatives of the political parties. There were more than 45,000 representatives of the political parties observing the polls. But above all, we must salute the Iraqi people who braved the threats and showed that the terrorists will not win.
Of course, the elections for the 275-member Transitional National Assembly are not an end in themselves. They mark the first step in Iraq's path to democracy. The new government will have its challenges. It is mandated to draft a constitution, which will be voted on in a referendum, and then fresh elections will be held under the new constitution. We should not fool ourselves that this will be easy. It won't. Attacks can be expected to continue as those who failed to stop the election, the thugs and terrorists, pursue their destructive mission.
Iraq's destiny rests in its hands. It is now incumbent on the Transitional National Assembly and the Transitional National Government to show wisdom and to be broadly inclusive in the vital task of drafting a new constitution. Winners will need to accept that in a democracy, minority rights and interests must be respected. We have seen much from the Shia and Kurdish leadership that suggests this will be the case. Iraq should not, however, be without continuing international support. The courage shown by millions of ordinary Iraqis to choose democracy must be rewarded by a renewed international commitment to help them in their ongoing transition to self-government. We cannot abandon Iraq to the likes of al-Zarqawi, who seek to replace hope with despair and to crush the aspirations of millions.
Australia should be proud of the role it has played in making this vote possible.
Our role in Saddam's overthrow was controversial, but it was the right thing to do. Most Australians also understand we have a responsibility to help Iraq become a free and democratic country. Our soldiers fought to free Iraq and are now training Iraqis so they can take over the role of security in their own country.
Our troops are also providing vital protection to the Australian diplomats making a key contribution to the future of Iraq. We will stay the course with the Iraqi people as they continue to move towards democracy and freedom.