Rolling Election for Iraq

We need to hold the first election in Iraq as quickly as practical. As it stands, the Administration is resisting Iraqi calls for an election, choosing instead to attempt to pass power over to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. I understand the attraction of allowing only representatives selected by the U.S. government to have a hand in shaping the Iraq constitution. But this is by far the riskiest strategy we can pursue - it practically guarantees that any group that does not like the outcome will accuse any new government of being a puppet of the United States, and will question the legitimacy of the document.

The only way for Iraq to have a true constitution is for the Iraqis to choose who should represent them to write it. And that means that we need to hold the first true election before the constitution is written. The longer we delay having an election, the longer it will take for democracy to take root, and for U.S. troops to be withdrawn. We can make an election work, we need to make it happen as quickly as possible, and we need to be prepared to live with the results.

I believe that we can hold the first election in Iraq sooner rather than later, and likely by mid 2004. Iraq undoubtedly lacks the civil and material infrastructure of a modern democracy. However the purpose of the first election in Iraq will not be to choose among different candidates or to address specific policy proposals. All we need to know from each individual Iraqi voter is which group they wish to have represent them in the writing of the constitution and in the first legislature. There are already numerous established groups in Iraq, based on religious, tribal and geographic divisions. Iraqis already know which group they most identify with, which group best represents their interests. A national vote that asks this one question provides enough voter-input to allow a European-style proportional legislature to be selected. Safeguards such as requiring a group to receive at least 5% of the national vote will have the same effect as in Europe, protecting against the fragmentation of fringe parties. Again, the election won’t be perfect, and we might not like every group represented, but the clock doesn’t start on democracy until the first true election.

Undoubtedly Iraq lacks the infrastructure necessary for a nationwide simultaneous vote. But arguably there is no need to have the whole country vote in a single day. Given the infrastructure limitations, a gradual vote, over the course of several months, makes more sense for Iraq. A gradual vote would require fewer voting stations and poll workers. Further, this would allow the U.S. military to be used to insure the fairness and integrity of the election, protecting against intimidation and harassment of the voters. A gradual election would allow us to complete a voter registration and the election at the same time, re-building the nationwide database of Iraqi citizens that any new government will eventually require. Again, a gradual election will not be perfect, but it will be an election by the Iraqi people, and a real first step towards a stable democracy.

One of the reasons that the Administration is intent on delaying elections is concern that if we were to allow a vote the Islamists would win, and that an Iranian-style government might eventually evolve. But if the Iraqi people want an Islamist government, that is their right. This is the hard part about extending freedom – it often means accepting that people will use that freedom to do things that we believe are bad for them. If we are to be true to our democratic principals, we must allow the people of Iraq to select their own government, whether we like the outcome or not.

I do not believe that an Islamist government would be inherently hostile to the U.S., or for that matter a danger to our national security. We have broken Hussein’s grip on power to allow the Iraqi people to choose their government. In the short run, if a popular Islamist government comes to power through an election it is safe to say that the U.S. will be reasonably well thought of by both the government and the Iraqi population. In the long run, religion and government do not mix well; government suffers, but religion suffers worse. Iran itself is a perfect example. God is of the spirit, but government is a human institution, applied by men and women. In Iran, the leaders may be pure of heart, but the visible, day to day power of government is applied by 25 year olds with machine guns. And it is hard for any 25 year old to enforce any moral edict without the strong stench of hypocrisy. Already this hypocrisy is turning young Iranians away from their religion, and will continue to weaken the Islamic religion until it is eventually voted or forced out of government.

I understand the impetus to ban the Baath party and forbid its members from participating in any election or new government. But whether we like them or not, they are the party that has represented the interests of the minority Sunni population. The largest challenge facing the U.S. now and which will face any new government is securing the participation of the Sunni minority in the political process; not only will this insure that Iraq is truly democratic but it is also critical to ending the Sunni insurrection. We cannot establish a democracy while at the same time forbidding participation by the individuals who have represented the interests of Sunnis. Undoubtedly, many of the ex-Baathists are killers, and deserve to be brought to justice by a new Iraqi government. But there is no reason to think that it will be any easier to identify the killers if we ban all Baathists from participating in society. Further, this is counter to our belief in the individual – we believe that each person should be judged on their own merits and actions, not through their affiliation to a group. If the Sunnis want to be represented by Baathists or ex-Baathists, that is their right. Again, this is why extending freedom takes a strong stomach – it means accepting that many people will use the freedom for goals and ends that we do not approve of.

Building a democracy in Iraq will be a long, slow process, and yes it will likely be messy. The growth of the United States into a true democracy was messy as well, and took many decades before we extended the vote to women and minorities. Does Iran have a democracy yet? More so than in the time of the Shah, but less than it will eventually be. Iraq will be the same way. The initial government will not be as progressive or democratic as we would like, or eventually hope for. And it might be decades before there is a national election that actually means a change in power. But it is their country, and only they can grow their democracy. And only by helping to extend democracy to Iraq can we claim a victory from the invasion and occupation.

Posted by at February 19, 2004 2:42 PM