Commentary

Upcoming Iraqi Election Foretells Stillborn Democracy

By Patrick Basham
September 30, 2004

Last week, Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi traveled to Washington to address Congress on several matters, including how Iraq will use some $180 million in U.S. funds to prepare for Iraq’s first democratic election, scheduled for this January. Sadly, it is unlikely that those funds will foster representative democracy. The elections do not appear logistically feasible and, even if they are held on schedule, they will not prove to be a legitimizing exercise.

On Election Day, Iraqis are supposed to choose a 275-member Iraqi National Assembly. Now, roughly four months before the deadline, the country is experiencing some of the worst violence since the American invasion. Terrorist attacks average about 100 per day. The anti-American insurgency is increasingly well-organized and sophisticated, both spreading its terror and intensifying its attacks across the country.

American officials assumed that the unelected interim Iraqi government would write a new chapter in that country’s political history. However, the interim government has proven unpopular and illegitimate in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. Members of the interim government are viewed, as were their predecessors in the failed Governing Council, as puppets of the Bush administration.

Violence and illegitimacy are compounded by demonstrated incompetence. In addition to widespread poverty and massive unemployment, political and bureaucratic corruption remains rampant.

The election schedule must confront the logistical fact that much of Iraq is lawless. Large sections of the country are beyond the control of the American military. Insurgents hold many of the cities and towns, such as Falluja and Ramadi, situated within the so-called “Sunni triangle” northwest of Baghdad. The massive Sadr City section of Baghdad is controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, and his Madhi Army. Sadr’s forces have also proven themselves capable of seizing and holding the centers of the largest southern Iraqi cities, such as Basra, Diwaniya and Amarra. Both south and west of the Iraqi capital, kidnappers and bandits beset vital major roads.

The security situation is so bad that the seven members of Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission are unable to move freely around the country. Backed by a $320 million budget, the commission is responsible for the conduct of the upcoming election. However, for security reasons, the commission’s official business is confined to Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.

The commissioners are increasingly forced to abandon their bodyguards and travel incognito throughout Iraq as they try to hire some 36,000 election officials to operate the 9,000 polling stations required to conduct a free and fair national election. Beyond the overriding security concerns, the commissioners are faced with the short-term problem of trying to register voters as part of an electorate that has never before participated in a democratic election and has never been included in a national census.

Independent observers on the ground consider it increasingly unrealistic to attempt to hold elections in such an inhospitable climate. Nevertheless, government officials insist that elections will take place on schedule. Allawi has suggested that elections could be “delayed” in Fallujah and other hostile centers without invalidating the overall outcome. Under that scenario, a significant portion of the Iraqi electorate would be immediately disenfranchised.

However, according to Allawi, Fallujah’s residents could take part in elections “after we liberate them from terrorists.” But the liberation of Fallujah from those guilty of terrorist acts and terrorist sympathies will require the removal of most Fallujans. A genuinely democratic vote would result in an overwhelming endorsement of those cloaked in Baathist-friendly colors.

Pessimistic Iraqis, especially the minority Sunni, already see little light at the end of the democratic tunnel. Today, public opinion surveys reveal that a majority of Sunnis support the insurgents. Without any political representation, Sunni pessimism will turn into rage that will be directed violently at Iraq’s nascent democratic institutions and actors.

No amount of wishful thinking in either Baghdad or Washington will erase the unpleasant reality that division, fear and hatred distinguish contemporary Iraqi politics. If Iraq’s first election is a partial one, the country’s new democracy will be politically stillborn. That would represent an insufficient return on so costly an investment.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and the author of the Cato Policy Analysis “Can Iraq Be Democratic?