Now that the team of U.N. inspectors blessed by Secretary-General Koffi Annan has arrived in Baghdad with the charge to determine the “feasibility” (U.N. Secretary-General Koffi Annan’s word) of countrywide general elections before June 30, 2004, when the keys of government are to be turned over to Iraq’s representatives by the United States and its allies, the whole world is eagerly awaiting the team’s judgment.
How ready is Iraq at this time for direct, violence-free and honest popular elections, whose outcome will be generally accepted as legitimate? Technical reasons, such as a lack of accurate voter rolls and an inability to guarantee the security and public order around the polling places, are claimed to be the lone roadblocks to direct democratic elections. But the United States and others opposed to early popular elections have avoided, or maybe not dared to, tell the truth.
Iraq, the truth to be told, is not well prepared for direct democracy. Iraq is a failed country with a failed regime, a failed bureaucracy, a failed educational system, a failed and lying system of science, and in most likelihood, a failed industry of weapons of mass destruction. There are no serious and bona fide political parties in Iraq. Iraq has its divergent clans and tribes, city Arabs, rural Arabs, and swamp Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, Shi’ite Muslims and Sunnis, Christians and Yazidis. It has clusters of religious communities, denominations and affiliations, and all these are crisscrossed with regional, tribal and clannish hostilities, jealousies and historical feuds.
Having been patched together in 1918 from three remote provinces left over from the Ottoman Empire, Iraq has endured in the 75 years of its existence a monarchy imported from the Arabian peninsula, a short flirtation with the Nazi camp during World War II, the brutal execution of a youthful king and his family, a succession of coup d’etats and 41 years of captivity under the Ba’ath Party, 25 of these years under Saddam Hussein.
Those challenging the proposed U.S. return of sovereignty to an Iraq government elected by regional caucuses rather than general elections as an “undemocratic transition” have not bothered to look into Iraq’s history. Those who believe that there are many “would-be democrats bottled up” in contemporary Iraq do not know their facts. Those who assert that Iraq’s Shi’ites “won’t vote en masse for Iranian-style mullahs” have obviously not noted the results of similar elections in Algiers and elsewhere. Those who claim that Iraq’s most respected leaders “show no intention of pressing for any such regime” have forgotten that political candidates in the United States and around the world have frequently failed to reveal their playing cards until after coming into power.
The diverse, competing, suspicious and hostile communities that make up contemporary Iraq can not be expected to display statesmanship, restraint, wisdom, courage and a spirit of compromise necessary for a mature democratic process. The Shi’ite majority (perhaps three out of five Iraqis) has been denied its just deserts during much of Iraq’s history and now wants to bite off as much of the national political pie as is possibly permitted. Shi’ites will certainly not permit themselves to be once more reduced to a position of powerlessness. The Sunnis (nearly 30 percent of the population) have held on to the reigns of power in modern Iraq and will undoubtedly resist any effort to relinquish them (much of the current terrorism in the “Sunni Triangle” is obviously intended to demonstrate the remaining Sunni muscle). The Kurds, (non-Arab ethnic stock) were promised a state of their own at the end of World War I and have been cheated out of it. Today, they will settle for nothing less than comprehensive domestic self-determination in a truly decentralized federal Iraq.
Premature national elections may indeed act to harden the positions of divergent communities, and may make resistance to needed compromises intractable. No direct countrywide elections given its strong religious and clannish cleavages, population disparities and turbulent history can alone guarantee stability, security and prosperity for Iraq. Witness many of the new states of Africa, the former U.S.S.R., the Caribbean and Latin America for the failure of “elective democracies.” Show elections and shell states alone do not a democratic nation make. And direct democratic elections, one might recall, can as easily produce or support a tyranny of the majority as a tyranny of the minority.
What is most critical at this time, is a workable skeleton constitution, sometimes referred to as a basic law that consists of realistic and neutral provisions for well-balanced and self-regulating governmental structures and machineries that are responsive to the current religious, ethnic and minority fears and concerns (similar sensitivity was manifested in post-apartheid South Africa, when a long-ruling community found itself in a permanent minority). Only after such basic law, now being worked on, is adequately tested should the legitimacy and the country’s permanent government be subjected to a popular vote.
Nobody should seek to arbitrarily delay the process of liberated Iraq’s self-realization and expect to be successful in doing so. But all concerned parties (the United Nations, the United States, the world community and, mostly, the Iraqis themselves) must be mindful of the lessons of history and of Iraq’s instability. A prudent view that the rush to have an Iraqi basic law ready by Feb. 28, the U.N. inspectors’ recommendations regarding nationwide elections before the Governing Council for review by Sunday, acceptance or rejection, and accordingly finalize preparations and possibly conduct such elections before June 30 is a time race fraught with many dangers.
It is imperative, therefore, that the U.N. mission as well as the Governing Council and the United States and its allies give appropriate attention not only to the question of feasibility but also to the even more important and difficult question of the advisability. Will hurried elections advance the long-term interests of a newly free and volatile Iraq?
Nicholas N. Kittrie, distinguished university professor at the American University, Washington College of Law and formerly with the British Middle East Command, is co-editor with former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo and the Republic of the Seychelles founding president, James R. Mancham, of “The Future of Peace in the Twenty-First Century” (Carolina Academic Press, 2003).