As this is written before the polls close in Baghdad, Tal Afar, Mosul and other areas in Iraq, there’s no way to comment on voter turnout, results and the lack or surge of violence surrounding the election.

But just the fact the election is taking place, under the watchful eyes of UN inspectors to keep voting fair, is vitally important, not just to the eroding popularity of the Bush Administration but to the 34 million Iraqis who are undergoing a brutal transition from dictatorship to ... something else.

Success in the election may be classified by the politicians in America as a nation-wide endorsement of the proposed constitution hammered out in negotiations among Sunni, Shi’ia and Kurd over the hot Mideast summer, but that isn’t necessary.

In fact, if the constitution is rejected, that might be a sign that democracy is healthier and more vital in Iraq than a “yes” vote.

As partisans from both the left and the right in the United States can attest to, real democracy means losing about half the time. In every election, there is a loser. What made Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush stand out is the fact they were re-elected. Jimmy Carter, the first George Bush and Gerald Ford didn’t have that luxury. That’s three out of the last six presidents.

Look at what happened to the proposed 5-cent gas tax here in Oklahoma back in September. Despite endorsements from all the politically-connected people, despite the fact that meant an extra dollar if your vehicle had a 20-gallon tank, despite an obvious and glaring need for more road and bridge repair, Oklahomans crushed the question at the ballot box.

There’s no guarantee the Iraqis will, in any subsequent election, pick a western-style, secular regime or one oriented to the Islamic Republic model in vogue in neighboring Iran. The key is that they choose either government type themselves.

The victory, then, that the Bush Administration and the interim Iraqi government can claim this weekend is not the result of the election. It’s that a free and fair election took place in a region where such occurrences are almost unheard of.

It’s what we were told as youngsters when we played Little League baseball or danced in the youth ballet: it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

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