The Iraqi election: "first step" or detour?
By Carl Conetta
Global Beat Syndicate
WASHINGTON--President Bush, having labored for weeks to lower expectations about the Iraqi election, wasted no time Sunday before declaring the event a resounding success. The president swept aside concerns about the security situation distorting the vote. He similarly dispatched the problems of voter confusion, insufficient time and freedom for parties to campaign, and inadequate monitoring. For him, the measure of success was simply that the balloting had occurred, despite violence, and that millions of Iraqis had participated.
But this much could have been achieved at any point in the past 18 months.
The real challenge in Iraq has been to create an electoral process leading to a government that truly reflected the balance of interests and opinions in Iraqi society. Such a government, accountable to all the people, might provide Iraqis with a trusted venue for working out their disputes peacefully.
Judged by this standard, Sunday's ballot did not constitute a first step in Iraq's democratic journey. "Detour" more accurately describes the event. It will produce an assembly that is badly skewed ethnically and, thus, unlikely to unite the country and bring peace. Some of the deficiencies in the electoral process were due to insecurity and haste. But there were deeper problems, too, which will sap the legitimacy of the new government.
First, the electoral system did not offer Iraq's regions representation proportionate to their populations. Unlike the system in the United States, assembly seats in Iraq are not rooted to geographic districts. The relative power of provinces depends not just on their population, but also on their voter turnout. It is as though representation in Congress for the state of Texas could change dramatically with every election. In Iraq, this takes on an ethnic dimension because of a significant correlation between ethnicity and location. The net effect is that every election becomes a power contest not simply between parties, but between ethnic communities.
This system raises special concerns among minority communities that may already fear the prospect of majority domination. In Sunni areas, it fed opposition to the elections, both violent and non-violent. Kurds were less concerned, but only because they had made a separate peace, winning an autonomous region.
Second, laws impeding or limiting the participation of former Baathists in the political process have also fed opposition to the government and elections. Tens of thousands of former Baath Party members must jump special hurdles to run for office. And none of the estimated 1.5 million former party members are eligible to become prime minister or to join the Presidency Council, regardless of their actual individual culpability in Saddam's crimes. Because the number of former Baathists among Sunnis is disproportionately high, these sanctions have added to the Sunnis' suspicions that the new order is not for them.
Broad-brush sanctions against former Baathists are a distinct departure from the practice of other, recent transitional societies. It would be better to follow their example and sanction only those individuals charged with crimes. This might help bring thousands of "rejectionists" into the political process.
Finally, the expatriate-led parties favored by the United States entered the election with incomparable advantages, courtesy of the occupation authorities. First among these advantages were the powers of office and incumbency. These gave the favored ones 18 months to build name recognition and power bases. As government parties, they also had easy access to the media and security services, which was especially important given the security situation. And they benefited from the decision, mentioned above, to treat the entire country as a single electoral district. This redressed their most serious weakness: their lack of local roots. Notably, the policy that drove the Sunnis out, slid the expatriates in.
While these issues will bear on the legitimacy of the new government, the policies it chooses to enact may matter more. The test of democracy does not end on election day. The new government will soon face another when it considers the issue of the U.S. military occupation. Opinion polls have made clear that most Iraqis do not support the occupation and want to see a quick end to it. How the new government deals with this issue will be an early indicator of how well it speaks for the people.