Squaring the Democratic Circle: Constitutional Options for Post‐​War Iraq

May 5, 2003 • Commentary

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says Operation Iraqi Freedom is designed to “help the Iraqi people create the conditions for a rapid transition to a representative self‐​government.” Given the enormity of this task, if Iraq is to be remade as a beacon of Islamic democracy, how should this new government be configured?

To ensure that Iraq doesn’t become another Bosnia or Lebanon, the introduction of a representative government must allow for the complex, heterogeneous nature of Iraqi society. There exist centuries‐​old religious and ethnic hatreds, as well as intense, frequently violent, tribal, and clan rivalries. More than 75 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people belong to one of 150 tribes whose decision‐​making is dominated by tribal elders. Historically, no Iraqi government, including Saddam Hussein’s, has survived without significant tribal support.

A balance of power must be achieved between those subscribing to different interpretations of the Muslim faith. Southern Iraq is dominated by Shiite Muslims (60 percent of Iraqis), including Iranian‐​supported fundamentalists, while traditionally more secular Sunni Muslims, the backbone of Saddam’s regime, live mainly in central Iraq. In northern Iraq, there is a large Kurdish majority.

Then there is the labyrinthine world of anti‐​Saddam opposition politics. The country’s new political structure must accommodate the leaders of the four million‐​strong exile community. Internally, the main opposition groups are Kurdish and Shiite. New political institutions must be designed to prevent the long‐​suppressed Shiites from (a) exacting revenge upon the Sunnis and (b) ignoring the needs of the Kurds and urban secularists.

A further obstacle to implementing representative government is the extensive political maneuvering among the opposition groups. Each group wants to benefit from the end of the Saddam era, preferably at the expense of its rival(s). Yassir Muhammad Ali, who leads a million‐​strong tribe, asserts, “We need guarantees that our tribe will be looked after in the new regime.” Disconcertingly, the two dominant Kurdish parties fought a bloody four‐​year civil war during the 1990s. While recent rhetoric is more political than militaristic, Zaid Sorchi, a leading Kurdish tribal leader, proudly asserts, “We … believe in tribes. Tribes are the way forward, not political parties.”

Given these underlying tensions, myriad constitutional options remain available for determining the make‐​up of the new governing structures. These options include:

  • The Afghanistan model. This is British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s preferred option. Before free elections could be organized in post‐​Taliban Afghanistan, a meeting of Afghani tribal elders elected Hamid Karzai as president. Blair wants the U.N. to organize a comparable conference that appoints members of an interim Iraqi administration that, while lacking executive power, runs the day‐​to‐​day government until elections are held. Unfortunately, Karzai is today the de facto mayor of Kabul, and little else. In practice, Afghanistan is politically partitioned with respective tribal warlords exercising dictatorial power over each region.
  • The Kurdish Model. Building on some small successes in self‐​ruled northern Iraq, some people advocate the creation of an Iraqi federation in which groups, such as the Kurds, enjoy a large amount of political autonomy that stops just short of statehood. This path may persuade Shiites on both sides of the Iraq‐​Iran border that a militant Islamic state cannot be carved out of the New Iraq.
  • The Northern Ireland Model. This requires a settlement based on the Northern Irish legislature, whereby those elected to office register as a member of a specific religious or ethnic group. The passage of legislation requires the support of a majority in each group, thereby binding the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds together, politically. However, the current political impasse in Northern Ireland doesn’t augur well for this model’s transmission to the Iraqi context.
  • The Pluralist Model. Heavily influenced by the early American experience with liberal democracy, the federation is centered on regional governments constitutionally autonomous in matters unrelated to national defense, foreign policy, and the judicial system.
  • The Swiss Model. Under this constitutional arrangement, a confederation of semi‐​autonomous regional governments dominates policymaking with some limited powers reserved to the federal government. A small federal cabinet, containing an elected representative of each major ethnic and religious group, is responsible for national affairs. The position of president rotates annually around the cabinet. All constitutional changes are subject to a referendum.

History informs us that the political infrastructure necessary to support a democratic system of representative government requires a constitution that: limits the power of government to interfere in people’s lives; establishes the primacy of the rule of law; settles conflict through an impartial judicial system; maintains public order through an untainted police force; mandates regular elections; and guarantees freedom of speech and association. Critically, Iraqis must recognize that the absence of those elements will doom its chosen model regardless of other, more ornate, constitutional trappings.

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