A Democratic Iraq? Don’t Hold Your Breath

March 31, 2003 • Commentary

The Bush administration’s plan for the reconstruction of a post‐​Saddam Iraq includes the laudable goal of a democratic political system. This new democracy, it is argued, will serve as a model throughout the Islamic world, like the so‐​called Velvet Revolution that swept across Eastern Europe at the Cold War’s end. Unfortunately, the White House will be disappointed with the short‐​to‐​medium‐​term result of its effort to establish a stable democracy in Iraq, or any other nation home to a large Muslim population.

This pessimism stems from an appreciation of what causes democracy to flourish in a society. Political scientist Ronald Inglehart, an expert on political culture and democratic values, studied the responses to the “World Values Survey,” which provides data from more than 70 countries, including 10 Islamic nations, ranging from dictatorships to Western democracies. Inglehart analyzed the empirical linkages between the survey responses within each society and a society’s level of democracy, as measured by the Freedom House political rights and civil liberties index. As a result, he concludes that “the prospects for democracy in Islamic countries seem particularly poor.”

Although only one in four countries with a Muslim majority is an electoral democracy, in most Muslim countries a high level of popular support exists for the concept of democracy. But that’s not enough. According to Inglehart, “overt support for democracy seems a necessary but not sufficient condition for democratic institutions to emerge.” Other factors are necessary.

The long‐​term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture that solidly supports democracy. The following cultural factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a stable democratic political system:

  • Political trust, i.e., the assumption that one’s opponent will accept the rules of the democratic process and surrender power if he loses an election;
  • Social tolerance, i.e., the acceptance of unpopular groups (e.g., homosexuals);
  • Economic development (a high standard of living legitimizes both democratic institutions and incumbent politicians);
  • Popular support for gender equality; and a
  • High priority on freedom of speech and popular participation in decision‐​making.

According to Inglehart, among Islamic societies, levels of trust, tolerance, economic well‐​being, gender equality, and the priority given to political activism fall far short of what is found in all established democracies.

As in other societies, the condition of Islamic democracy is tied to the respective political culture, which is clearly tied to the respective level of economic development. This is because democratization is much more likely to occur — and to take hold — in richer rather than in poorer nations. A higher standard of living breeds values that demand greater democracy.

Hence, Turkey, the most economically developed and socially tolerant Islamic country, is currently in a democratic transition zone with the likes of South Africa. Meanwhile, the Iranian political culture exhibits positive signs of democratization, as befits the second wealthiest Islamic country. But like so many of its poor brethren, Iraq will not be a stable democratic nation until it is much wealthier than at present.

However, President Bush’s plan for the democratization of Iraq is premised upon the adoption of a constitution that will be successfully implemented in the short‐​term by groups of Iraqi elites bargaining among one another. Bush is placing a large wager that the formation of democratic institutions in Iraq can stimulate a democratic political culture. If he’s correct, it will constitute a democratic first.

On the contrary, the available evidence strongly suggests that the causal relationship works the other way round. During the 1990s, two leading political scientists studied 131 countries and concluded that economic development causes higher levels of democratic values in the political culture that, in turn, produce higher, more stable levels of democracy. In sum, a political culture shapes democracy far more than democracy shapes the political culture.

Therefore, the Iraqi democratic reconstruction project will be a good deal harder than White House theorists expect. In practice, the realization of Iraq’s democratic potential will depend more on the introduction of a free market economic system and its long‐​term positive influence on Iraqi political culture than on a United Nations‐​approved election.

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