Monday, January 17, 2005

The Iraqi elections (Normblog)

Guest-posted on the website of Norman Geras (Normblog)
January 17, 2005

The Iraqi Elections (by Jeff Weintraub)

As the scheduled date for the Iraqi elections approaches, there have been a number of suggestions - by outsiders and by Sunni Arab political figures in Iraq - that the elections should be postponed, due to the ongoing violence and insecurity in Iraq and the likelihood of widespread non-participation in the so-called Sunni Triangle. So far, frankly, I have found almost all of these suggestions a bit unreal, even when they have been made in good faith (as opposed to postponement being used as a way to prevent elections from happening at all).

It is certainly true that right now the conditions for holding national elections in Iraq are terrible, and their legitimacy will be undermined if a large proportion of the Sunni Arab minority either boycott them or are intimidated from voting by the Sunni insurgents. These are valid concerns, and they point to genuine and serious problems attributable in large part (though not exclusively) to the spectacular incompetence of the post-Saddam US occupation of Iraq. But why on earth should delaying the elections at this point help solve any of these problems, or improve the conditions for successful and more representative elections? I have been waiting to hear a half-way plausible case for this proposition, but in vain.

On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that postponing the elections at this point would only make matters worse. The collection of fascists, Sunni irredentists, Islamist fanatics, and foreign jihadists that make up the Sunni 'insurgency' are determined to prevent the elections from ever taking place, and have been waging a ferocious campaign of terrorism and disruption to block them. It's pretty obvious that postponing the elections as a result of their campaign would only encourage them to re-double their efforts.

Opposition to the elections also has some wider support among the Sunni Arab minority (probably about 15-20% of the population), including people who are not Ba'athists, terrorists, and/or religious fanatics. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them worth taking seriously or sympathetically, but the fundamental factor is that the Sunni Arab minority has always dominated Iraq, and the sudden loss of their dominant position has been traumatic and disorienting, particularly in conjunction with widespread lack of security and the absence of tangible payoffs from the reconstruction of the country. It is hard for them to come to terms with the idea of an Iraq dominated by the Shiite majority (probably around 55-65%), not to mention the (overwhelmingly Sunni) Kurds (around 20%). A major portion of the Sunni Arab elites, as well as the general Sunni Arab population, simply will not accept this situation if there's any way to avoid it. But that means that these political forces are really opposed, not to elections under present circumstances, but to any (more or less) democratic elections. (And they are supported in this opposition by a very large portion of public opinion in the wider Arab world, which of course is overwhelmingly Sunni and was overwhelmingly hostile to the war that overthrew the Iraqi Ba'ath regime.) Once again, a postponement isn't going to change that.

On the other hand, capitulating to the insurgents at this point would almost certainly enrage and demoralize the majority of Iraqis, who very much want the elections to go ahead. Much of the discussion about the Iraqi elections in the US and Europe seems to assume that pushing forward with the scheduled date is an obsession peculiar to the Bush administration. This completely misses the point. The key reason that these elections have been scheduled is that the Iraqi Shiite leadership, both religious and secular, has demanded that they be held. And unlike the situation among Sunni Arabs (in Iraq and elsewhere), the entire range of political and religious forces in Shiite Iraq - with the partial exception of Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers - are determined to make the elections happen, come hell or high water. To put things in the most basic terms, the really crucial point is not that George Bush wants these elections to go ahead, but that the Ayatollah Sistani (and the whole mainstream Shiite religious leadership, centered on Sistani) has insisted that they go ahead. Every week, sermons in Shiite mosques all over Iraq repeat the message that voting in the elections is both a religious and a national duty, and there is every indication that a large proportion of Iraqi Shiites will actually turn out to vote, despite the threat of being shot or blown up as a result. The Iraqi Kurds are also committed to the election, along with such non-sectarian political forces as the Iraqi Communist Party. (So we're probably talking about a total of roughly 80-85% of the country that wants the elections to take place.)

To an increasing extent, many of the terrorist attacks being carried out by Sunni insurgents - not just on political figures, government workers, policemen, and members of the Iraqi National Guard, but also Shiite religious leaders, religious pilgrims, and ordinary civilians - seem to be deliberately aimed at provoking an all-out civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq. So far, this civil war has remained mostly incipient and one-sided, in large part because the Shiite leadership has made great efforts to prevent Shiites from responding violently to these atrocities and other provocations. Instead, they have united in pursuing a strategy of gaining power (and, in the longer run, phasing out the US-led occupation) through largely peaceful political means. (Again, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrists have been the exception, but for the moment they seem relatively marginalized.) That means they have been willing to sacrifice a good deal to hold open the possibility of national elections. If the Sunni insurgents are able to derail the elections by means of escalating terrorism and other violence, that Shiite strategy will have hit a dead end, and there's a good possibility that Shiites will opt for violent retaliation, with results that will make the present situation look idyllic.

The first serious case for postponing the Iraqi elections that I have encountered is the one put forward by the political scientist Larry Diamond in this piece and elsewhere. Diamond, who spent some time in Iraq as an adviser to the CPA, knows what he's talking about, and has demonstrated that he's sincerely committed to promoting democratization in Iraq (and elsewhere). He rejects most of the sillier points raised by other advocates of postponement (e.g., that the elections should wait until the terrorists stop murdering people and otherwise disrupting the country), and his analysis plausibly brings out potential dangers of proceeding with these elections as planned. He is absolutely right to emphasize cases where 'badly timed and ill-prepared elections set back the prospects for democracy, stability and ethnic accommodation'.

So this is probably the best argument for postponement available. But on closer inspection, Diamond's argument only underlines the reasons why postponing the elections at this point would be a bad idea. Diamond proposes, not an open-ended delay, but 'a one-time postponement of several months, in order to establish the "necessary conditions" for a fair and inclusive vote'. But, as I asked above, what could such a postponement actually accomplish? It turns out that Diamond's key proposal is to use this period of postponement to fundamentally change the entire electoral system (to an alternative system that Diamond supported from the start), while in the meantime carrying out the first accurate Iraqi census in many years.

In my (non-expert) opinion, this is a total non-starter. In the first place, it is not self-evidently clear that the alternative system favoured by Diamond and others would have been better, on balance, than the one adopted (in negotiations involving Iraqi political forces and the CPA, under the aegis of the UN). As other scholars of constitution-making and possible democratization in Iraq have argued, the system proposed by Diamond and others also had important drawbacks, and could well have been unacceptable to significant sectors of Shiite and Kurdish opinion. (These arguments have been effectively made, for example, by Brendan O'Leary, another political scientist who served as a constitutional adviser to the Kurdistan regional government.) In a more ideal world, the whole framework for political transition could certainly have been crafted in ways that better met some of the reasonable and legitimate concerns of the Sunni Arab minority (and others) - though, of course, there is no guarantee at all that meeting their legitimate concerns would have reduced the violence of the insurgents or the intransigence of rejectionist Sunni elites, and any compromise that went beyond that would have angered Iraqi Shiites and/or Kurds (i.e., the other 80-85% of the population). I think there is weight to the objections raised against the system preferred by Diamond, though I certainly wouldn't claim that the existing system is without flaws - and, anyway, I don't feel entirely qualified to adjudicate these issues.

However, all these arguments were a lot more immediately relevant back in mid-2004. To postpone the election now, at the last minute, and engage in a frantic overhaul of the whole electoral system, strikes me as a sure recipe for disaster - leading to heightened terrorist violence and Sunni Arab intransigence, Shiite and Kurdish outrage, deadlocked negotiations, dismay and demoralization among Iraqis who support elections, and an increased likelihood of all-out civil war... among other problems. If this is the best alternative solution that Diamond can offer, then he's basically clinched the case for going ahead with the elections as presently scheduled.

That's certainly the conclusion I would draw. Yes, the Iraqi elections are set to take place under terrible conditions, they will almost certainly be marked by considerable violence and chaos, and their long-term results are not easy to predict. Some of their political consequences may well be unpleasant. In a lot of ways, the whole process leading up to this point could have been done better - much better.

But at this point it's clear that going ahead with the elections is by far the best (or least bad) alternative from among the realistically available possibilities, and that any delay or postponement will almost certainly make matters worse. That being the case, I think the choice for those of us outside Iraq is clear. Either one supports those Iraqis who are determined to make the elections happen successfully, even under the threat of violence, or one supports those Iraqis (and foreign terrorists) who are determined to kill other Iraqis in order to prevent the elections from taking place. From my point of view, it's no contest.
(Jeff Weintraub)

Posted by Norm at 09:30 PM | Permalink


New York Times
January 9, 2005, Sunday

EDITORIAL DESK | Op-Ed 1426 words
Late Edition - Final , Section 4 , Page 13 , Column 1

How a Vote Could Derail Democracy

By Larry Diamond
Stanford, Calif.

Iraq is about to reach a point of no return. If, as President Bush insists, it goes ahead with elections for the new transitional government on Jan. 30, Iraq may score a huge moral and political victory for democracy over violence and terrorism. More likely, however, these elections will only increase political polarization and violence by entrenching the perceptions of Sunni Arab marginalization that are helping to drive the violence in the first place. This would not be the first instance when badly timed and ill-prepared elections set back the prospects for democracy, stability and ethnic accommodation. Think of Angola in 1992, Bosnia in 1996, Liberia in 1997.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the problem is not simply that there is too much mayhem and disorder in significant parts of Iraq. Let's face it, at some point Iraq will have to hold elections, and foreign terrorists, religious fanatics and diehard defenders of the old order will try to use violence to obstruct them.

Rather, the problem right now is that the opposition to holding elections goes well beyond these irreconcilable spoilers. It includes a great many other actors - many of them moderate and democratic - who believe that elections this month cannot possibly be fair, and who have therefore resolved not to legitimize them by participating.

These people - encompassing a wide array of Sunni Arab civic, tribal and religious leaders - can be brought into the political process. If they were to participate in elections, the insurgent and terrorist violence plaguing Iraq would be substantially reduced. If their exclusion from the political process is confirmed by elections this month, ethnic and religious animosities will only intensify, and the country could well slide toward civil war.

The most serious calls for postponement come from Sunni political forces that oppose not democracy per se, but rather the structure of the transitional political process. Specifically, they object to the electoral system of proportional representation for the new assembly that will choose a transitional government and write a constitution; seats will be allocated not based on geography but on the national vote results. With violence and instability much more pervasive in the Sunni provinces, they worry that polling will be disrupted, hurting Sunni slates' chance of winning enough votes to qualify for seats.

If turnout is much heavier in the Shiite south and Kurdish north than in Sunni provinces like Al Anbar (which includes Falluja) and Salaheddin (whose capital is Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit), the Sunnis, who account for about 15 percent to 20 percent of the population, may win only a tiny percentage of the seats. Then, they fear, their bid for a fair share of power and resources in the new system would be crushed. (That the Kurds and Shiites have been subjected to such treatment by the central government for decades doesn't justify their perpetuating it.)

Sunni political and social leaders are not calling for an open-ended cancellation of the election. They are requesting a one-time postponement of several months, in order to establish the "necessary conditions" for a fair and inclusive vote. They want a more transparent electoral commission. They want citizens to be better informed about the electoral process. They worry that some who have registered to vote are foreigners (mostly Iranians) recruited to back the more militant Shiite parties.

Most of all, however, these Sunnis want electoral districts to be established (perhaps along the lines of the existing 18 provinces), so that each province can be assured of some minimum representation in Parliament, based on its estimated share of the national population. Proportional representation would give each party or coalition a share of the seats in each province equivalent to its share of the provincial vote. (In fact, a version of this electoral system is precisely what I and other experts recommended to the Coalition Provisional Authority early last year, but our suggestion fell on deaf ears.)

Yes, Sunni opposition forces have made other requests that cannot be fully accommodated, including the withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities within a month of the election and the restructuring of the current interim government. But the need now is not for pure concession or pure rejection, but rather for negotiation.

Fortunately, it is no longer true, as has often been argued, that there is no one to negotiate with. Over the last few months, Sunni religious, tribal, civic and political leaders have begun meeting and forming alliances. At a conference in Tikrit on Dec. 23, Sunni representatives from seven provinces met, released a statement articulating their concerns and requests, and elected an "executive body" to negotiate on their behalf.

The group's leadership committee includes Hatem Mukhlis, the surgeon who met with President Bush in the Oval Office two months before the invasion of Iraq and is now a member of Iraq's interim advisory council, and Saleh Mutlaq, a former senior Iraqi Army officer who was sentenced to death by Saddam Hussein in 1978 for refusing to suppress the Shiite community, then was spared and became a successful businessman. Also prominent in this new coalition is the Association of Muslim Scholars, the principal body of Sunni Muslim clerics, and another recently formed group, the Iraqi National Founding Congress, whose spokesman is a Baghdad University political scientist, Wamid Nadmi.

The members of this Sunni coalition are varied. Some of them are moderate, with democratic credentials. Some are extremely anti-American - Arab nationalists and Islamists who have openly sympathized with the insurgency. The Bush administration is adamant that it "will not negotiate with terrorists" - and will not condone the Iraqi authorities doing so either. But in conditions approximating civil war, you are not going to find many Mother Teresas. You negotiate with agents and sympathizers of violence who decide that they are ready to take a different path.

The Sunni coalition leaders have said that if the voting is postponed and their concerns are addressed, they will call on their followers to participate in the rescheduled elections. Otherwise, they are committed to a boycott, which in the existing climate of violence and fear would likely depress voter turnout to minuscule levels in their provinces.

While Prime Minister Ayad Allawi last week reiterated the call for keeping the elections on schedule, an ever-growing group of Iraqis is now coming to recognize that they must be postponed. This includes two respected Sunni politicians who were members of the Iraqi Governing Council: Adnan Pachachi, who led the drafting of Iraq's liberal interim constitution, and the moderate Islamist politician Mohsen Abdul Hameed. The advocates of postponement now also include an overwhelming majority of Iraq's 33 ministers, and last week President Ghazi al-Yawar discussed having the United Nations reassess whether elections should be held.

What is needed now is for all of Iraq's social and political stakeholders to sit down and talk. The outlines of a compromise are visible. The Sunnis could get a one-time postponement of the vote, an electoral system based substantially on provincial districts, and certain other political and administrative reforms. The leading Shiites, who have drawn together into the United Iraqi Alliance and seem set to win an election no matter when it is held or under what system, could get a commitment on the part of the Sunni opposition groups to end the electoral boycott and to work to reduce the violence, and thus to create a political situation in which their victory will be worth having.

In crises, democracy is not forged through a sudden moral conversion of warring parties to principles of freedom and the rule of law. Rather, bitter antagonists come to see a democratic accommodation as their second-best option - worse than the domination they would prefer, but better than the mutual destruction that they risk through continued strife.

In the coming days, Iraqi political and social leaders have the opportunity to reach across their lines of division and begin to forge such a historic compromise. It is in America's interest to urge them to do so. If, instead, they plunge forward with elections that leave one section of the country excluded and embittered, we will all be the losers.

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an editor of The Journal of Democracy, was an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad from January 2004 to April 2004.