The Future of Iraqi Democracy

3 Nov

This NY Times op-ed by former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi highlights the drawbacks of quick democratization–press for elections too soon and you may end up with a dysfunctional government sorely lacking in public support:

Accordingly, the vast majority of the electorate based their choices on sectarian and ethnic affiliations, not on genuine political platforms. Because many electoral lists weren’t made public until just before the voting, the competing candidates were simply unknown to ordinary Iraqis. This gave rise to our sectarian Parliament, controlled by party leaders rather than by the genuine representatives of the people. They have assembled a government unaccountable and unanswerable to its people.

Though I recognize the problems a transitioning democracy faces in producing a stable government, Allawi underscores the primary benefit of free elections: legitimacy. A country needs some form of the population’s consent to construct a government in a post-authoritarian regime, or at least a mechanism for keeping the people from turning against the process. But I’m not sure the measures Allawi is proposing are either realistic or likely to confer more legitimacy:

Furthermore, a new law should ban the use of religious symbols and rhetoric by candidates and parties — these have no place in democratic elections. In order to prevent interference from militias and to ensure transparency, the United Nations must supervise all these elections district by district. And these reforms should be supplemented by other preconditions of national reconciliation, like general amnesty to all those who have not engaged in terrorism.

I have a hard time believing a country that is currently split along ethnic and religious lines is going to accept a general ban on religious symbols. An Iraqi politician need only point to the Republicans in the US, christian democrats in Europe, or even the president of secular Turkey and say “Look, religion is a part of the democracies of the west and our neighbor Turkey–why should we eliminate it from our political discourse?” It’s hard to sell people on the liberty granting benefits of democracy while telling them you have to enact illiberal measures to achieve them.

And although amnesty will have to be a necessary part of any nationwide political reconciliation, it will likely have to include those who have engaged in terrorism, to say nothing of the difficulty of sorting out those who have been part of the insurgency but not engaged in terrorism and those that have committed terrorist acts.

Ultimately, the problem is that Allawi’s plan sounds tailored to the concerns of an American audience: don’t allow Islamic extremists to win elections, prevent shari’a from being put into law, don’t let insurgents who have killed American soldiers get away with it. But these aren’t the same concerns for Iraqis or for putting together a working political consensus.  Serving as another reminder that democracy promotion is a difficult and flawed policy to begin with.


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