Monday, January 03, 2005

The Elections We Have

Barring a last minute delay or other unexpected postponement, later this month Iraq will bear witness to a watershed moment in that nation's history: a free election. Many Iraqis may not go to the polls out of security concerns or disenchantment with the process, and others may feel compelled to take part in elections that they perceive as somewhat dubious in their fairness of administration - with an occupying army on their doorstep. Still, these are the elections we have, if not the ones we want, so it is in all of our best interest to insure that they are designed and carried out in a way that is most conducive to the formation of a stable, peaceful, and democratic Iraq.

Somewhat surprisingly, Adnan Pachachi, a prominent Sunni member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, and erstwhile supporter of the January 30th date set aside for elections, has
called for the elections to be put off for a few months so that Iraq can improve the security situation and better communicate the parameters and characteristics of the upcoming electoral event to a population that remains relatively ignorant of democratic niceties and nuances (via Laura Rozen).

Pachachi makes a compelling case (if not for improved security which is unlikely in a matter of months, at least for better informing the public and fostering greater inclusion), and given our decision, which looks wise in retrospect, to delay elections in Afghanistan until the situation was more stable, there appears to be a precedent worth following. Unfortunately, the man who seemingly guides Iraq's fate as much as any other at this point in time, the senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has dug in his heels and is resolute that January 30th will be the day for elections - no questions. Unless we can somehow convince Sistani to alter his course slightly, an unlikely scenario given the momentum behind the January 30th date, it is time to plan accordingly.

The Daily Demarche (a blog run by two Foreign Service Officers which has recently been the locus of a certain back and forth between yours truly and the thoughtful Mssr. Smiley - although in the process, one commenter said TIA was "boring" - ouch!), has cited an article by Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli which holds El Salvador up as a model for Iraq, at least in terms of conducting an election in times of intra-national conflict and unrest. This article does provide hope that elections could survive the expected violence and disruptions on election day, but even the author admits, as Dr. Demarche points out, "the elections are not a magic wand that will solve the country's burning security issues and they will not necessarily lead quickly to democratic and stable government."

I have contended on
numerous occasions that the elections themselves, far from a panacea for Iraq's ills, will bring to a head many of the simmering ethnic tensions and competing interests that could themselves prove the undoing of a unified Iraq. Most prominently, the Kurds must be satisfied with their level of autonomy in order to forestall their secession from greater Iraq, but the Shiites seem to be balking at the degree of control granted the Kurds in the Transitional Administrative Law which the Kurds view as a base point for negotiation.

Separately, the Sunni population must somehow be led to accept their diminished role as the majority Shiites claim power after decades of Sunni dominated Baath governance - replete with the many privileges and boons granted the ruling Sunnis. Further, the distinctly religious character of the Shiite candidate slate has raised the specter of sectarian upheaval if Shiite spiritual doctrine is incorporated into Iraqi law - an outcome that many Sunnis would view as blasphemous and wholly unacceptable.

The Raphaeli piece also discusses a new twist in the internecine tug of war being played out in the run-up to the 30th: now the Kurds have threatened to boycott the elections if the government follows through with its plan to allow Arab emigres in Kirkuk to vote in that city (under Saddam's leadership, Arabs were imported to Kirkuk to dilute the Kurdish population in that oil rich metropolis). Raphaeli noted that: "It is too soon to discount the possibility that the Kurds may boycott the elections if their demands to declare Kirkuk as a Kurdish city do not materialize." Kirkuk's wealth and strategic importance will not be ceded by any party easily and without some lingering grievance.

Since I, unlike
Charles Krauthammer, do not believe that civil war in Iraq could be a "useful tool," nor do I subscribe to the Les Gelb/Peter Galbraith theory embracing fragmentation as a long term solution for Iraq, it is imperative that we come up with solutions to these problems in order to hold Iraq together and attempt to aid the precarious transition to democracy.

First, we must come to grips with the fact that the elections might result in a representative government that suits the tastes of a majority of Iraqis, but which runs counter to our democratic sensibilities and at least some of our stated goals and purposes in the region. Juan Cole has noted some of the characteristics of the United Iraqi Alliance, the predominately Shiite coalition sponsored by the aforementioned Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
As to the platform itself, it has two parts, basic principles and vision of Iraq's polity, and then specific areas of endeavor. As for basic principles:

First, the Iraq that we want:

1. A united Iraq - land and people - with full national sovereignty.

2. A timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.

3. A constitutional, pluralistic, democratic and federally united Iraq.

4. Iraq that respects the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people. The state religion is Islam.

5. Iraq that respects human rights, that does not discriminate on the grounds of sects, religions, or ethnicities, and that preserves the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and protects them against persecution and marginalization.

6. Iraq that provides a climate of peaceful coexistence among Iraqis without preferential treatment for any group.

7. Iraq in which the judiciary is independent and in which justice and equality prevail.
I'm not sure most Americans realize that the biggest and most important party coalition in Iraq, which will almost certainly form the next government, has explicitly stated in its platform that it wants a specific timetable announced for withdrawal of US troops from the country.

The rest of the statement promises security, fighting terrorism, a depoliticized military; a state guarantee of a job to every Iraqi, social security and workmen's compensation, state support for the building of houses for homeowners; providing health services and medicine and health insurance; supporting women's participation in politics, the economy and social life; support for youth and for families; developing industry and agriculture and the provision of basic services; education; etc.

An independent foreign policy is promised, as is membership in the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. [This plank implies non-recognition of Israel until there is a global peace settlement accepted by these two organizations).

I think we are looking at the policies of the new Iraq. They aren't what Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Wolfowitz imagined. [emphasis added]
If a government is formed in Iraq post-election that stakes out a position of measured hostility to Israel, embraces some form of religiosity, and/or demands an imminent withdrawal of US troops, the Bush administration will be faced with several difficult choices. Perhaps this will serve as a lesson to the limits of immediate and ad hoc transitioning to representative democracy - especially in regions where the population at large is not entirely amenable to our government and its policies. Without the underlying civic society, elections themselves might not spawn what we would recognize as "democracy" per se, and even if that, the resulting government may not find common cause with many of our foreign policy objectives. It will be interesting to witness how an administration that is accustomed to discipline, loyalty, and complete control handles a situation that is dictated more by a Shiite cleric than a coterie of close knit allies, dutifully staying on message. Although the temptation to manipulate the outcome and influence the eventual leadership will be great, that road is fraught with danger and must be navigated deftly and with a soft touch - not a skill set that would necessarily be attributed to Condoleeza Rice and others in charge of the Bush administration's diplomatic entourage. Perhaps we should abstain from the more heavy-handed tactics, preferring instead to dialogue with our Iraqi counterparts.

Interfering directly in the affairs of state via coup or other destabilization methodologies (as in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and other 20th century excursions discussed
here), would be a catastrophic error that could have far reaching repercussions. The population in Iraq is already prone to cynicism and suspicion of our motives. Unsubstantiated and often bizarre anti-American rumors circulate at the speed of sound to widespread approval from the masses. If we were to create a situation in which these rumors were in some way given a touch of credence, and in the process alienate the Shiite majority or Sistani, Iraq as a nation would turn against us. Furthermore, the perception of subservience to US interests is already a rather unpopular stigma for any would-be leader, so compelling such a rigid stance would undermine our potential allies. Instead, we must be willing to accept a less than perfect outcome on many fronts.

I think one of the peripheral goals of the invasion of Iraq was to neutralize an enemy of Israel (Saddam) and possibly establish an ally (perhaps under the leadership of Ahmed Chalabi). Whatever the value of such a dynamic, we must not advocate for this diplomatic detente too strenuously. If the new government chooses such a route, all the better. If not, we must not let that become a pretext for action. Regarding Israel vis-a-vis the new Iraqi government, we must let the chips fall where they may because the stakes in Iraq supersede the benefit of Israel having an ally in the Gulf. Looking on the bright side, there is at least hope that whatever regime emerges will not be as hostile as Saddam's.

While I think it would be better for Iraq if the US could maintain a troop presence in the country for at least a few years until Iraq can stand up a qualified, competent, and non-partisan military and security detail (although like
Djerejian, I think a decade might be more suitable), a demand for our ouster made by the Shiites would be difficult to ignore. We must try to convince the Shiite leadership that our presence is crucial for maintaining some semblance of security - at least precluding ethnic and sectarian violence that could morph into full blown civil war. If Sistani is unreceptive to such entreaties, however, there is little we can do. Whereas now we are confronting a largely Sunni insurgency, if Sistani mobilizes, even tacitly, the Shiite population against our efforts, our position would be untenable. Nevertheless, hope remains that Sistani recognizes our importance in maintaining order and relative peace, and there is even the possibility that we can leverage this role in negotiating other aspects of the political dynamic that Sistani and other Shiite leaders might be inclined to enact against our advice.

In order to guarantee a more inclusive government, we should stress to the Shiite leadership that they should take an enlightened approach to dealing with the Kurds, religious freedoms, and other basic rights in general. Fusing Shiite dogma with Iraqi law would unnecessarily alienate the Sunni minority, and possibly send Iraq down a path to civil war. Denying Kurds a comfortable level of autonomy, which they have grown accustomed to over the past decade, could also lead to disastrous outcomes - igniting long held Kurdish dreams of sovereignty. Again, if the Shiites refuse our counsel, there is little we can do to compel compliance.

Underlying these already troublesome realities is the fact that the level of Sunni participation in the election is uncertain at this point. This scenario is a source of great concern because it is Iraq's first election and legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people is so vital. Of no less importance, however, is the fact that the legislature elected on the 30th will also be selecting an assembly that will draft Iraq's permanent constitution. This election will dictate the future of Iraq's entire political structure. An article in the
New York Times (via Juan Cole), discusses some of the potential effects of a Sunni boycott.
The [US] diplomat said even some Shiite politicians who were followers of Ayatollah Sistani were concerned that a Pyrrhic victory by Shiites, effectively shutting Sunni Arabs out of power, could alienate Sunnis and lead to more internal strife. Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraqis and were generally denied power under Saddam Hussein.

"You do the math," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former adviser to the American occupation in Baghdad. "Iraq's population is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurds. But if Sunnis don't vote, they could become only 5 percent of the electorate." Iraqis are to choose among 107 slates and 7,000 candidates.

If Sunnis are marginalized in that fashion, Mr. Diamond said, it could lead to further alienation, an increased insurgency and possibly a civil war, especially if the Kurdish and Shiite victors try to write a constitution that favors their interests over the Sunnis'.
Professor Juan Cole has come up with a solution to this conundrum that appears to be gaining some traction in diplomatic circles: a one-time set aside of seats in the legislature for Sunni candidates (proportional to the population ratio) should Sunnis fail to turn out on election day. This would insure that there would be ample Sunni representation in the nascent government regardless of turnout and, more importantly, a Sunni voice in the framing and drafting of the permanent constitution. From the above cited Times article:
The Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely predicted, Sunni candidates fail to do well in Iraq's elections.

An even more radical step, one that a Western diplomat said was raised already with an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, is the possibility of adding some of the top vote-getters among the Sunni candidates to the 275-member legislature, even if they lose to non-Sunni candidates.
And from Juan Cole:
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the US would "urge" Iraqi Sunnis to turn out to vote. He also said that any post-election scheme for ensuring proper Sunni participation, such as increasing the number of seats in parliament and awarding the extra ones to Sunnis as a quota, would have to await the election of the Iraqi parliament itself, since only it could make such new rules. Powell at one point seemed to me to suggest that ensuring Sunni representation at the cabinet level in the executive of the new government would be a sufficient step. But that is simply not true. Since parliament will craft the new permanent constitution, it is essential that Sunni Arabs have a proportionate role in drafting it.
Cole is right to note that the other solution being discussed, the Lebanese model of a power sharing arrangement amongst competing interests that apportions cabinet ministries and government offices to the disparate ethnic groups, would be less than desirable. As Cole points out, it would do nothing to ensure a Sunni voice in the new constitution, but it is also a system with structural weaknesses that I discussed at length here

Andrew Arato, a guest editorialist on Informed Comment, offers another possible solution: instead of insuring seats in the parliament, the new government should guarantee representation proportional to population in the constitution drafting assembly - as well as some other mechanisms that give weight to minority concerns.

Changing the mistaken, single district electoral law might have been the most useful suggestion for avoiding catastrophe, but it is now unfortunately too late. There are, however, alternatives once a constitutional National Assembly is elected that would deal with the same problem of regional or ethnic or party-political under-representation as long as that representation does not drop to zero. The most obvious one is setting up a constitution drafting committee based on party parity, and a qualified majority rule. Constitutions are not actually drafted by plenary sessions, here the probable locus of misrepresentation, but parliamentary committees where that representation can be corrected. I worked on constitution-making in Hungary 1994-96, and in particular on a scheme by which a 75% governmental majority was greatly reduced to give real participation rights to the opposition, on the drafting committee level. Parliament could only vote on drafts that came out of a committee in which there was almost parity among 5-6 parties. Something like this, less formally but more successfully was done in Spain in 1977.

Let us assume for the sake of argument a National Assembly with 60% for the Shi'ite led block (The Iraqi United Alliance), 20% for the Kurdistan List and 10% for a combination of various authentic Sunni Arab lists, 5% for the governmental list of Allawi, and 5% for various other groupings. In this case, a 15-person committee could be set up having 3 expert members for each of these groupings, with the requirement that positive decisions (preferably on single clauses) be taken by 12 out of 15 members. The majority would still be protected, since nothing could be adopted without its plenary votes. The Kurdish minority could be protected too if in addition the rule were adopted that a final draft requires the support of 80% of the members of the National Assembly.

The combination of these provisions would be preferable even for the Kurds to the three-province veto available in the current interim constitution, the Temporary Administrative Law. As that poorly drafted and hastily imposed document is written, a simple parliamentary majority can apparently adopt a new constitution, while the negative vote of 2/3 of merely three provinces--hence possibly as few as 1/10 of the population--can block ratification. This arrangement is entirely unstable, and the leaders of the Shi'ite majority have never accepted it. They could very well repudiate it along with all other restrictions originally imposed by the occupying power.
Colin Powell and the Bush administration are right to press for Sunni participation right up to the elections, as that would be the best possible outcome, making Cole's plan unnecessary. Openly embracing such a plan prematurely could depress Sunni turnout as they may actually gain more by staying home (depending on the number of seats guaranteed). If the Sunnis fail to turn out in adequate numbers, however, then I think the Bush administration should exert diplomatic pressure to accomplish either Cole's or Arato's solutions - or both. Without either of these systems in place, a Sunni boycott could have long term detrimental effects on the peace, stability, and prosperity in Iraq. Even in the event of solid Sunni participation, Arato's plan deserves closer consideration as it would do much to assuage the fears of both the Kurds and the Sunnis, and could compel the cooperation of the Shiites on a broad range of issues without the unseemly interference of the United States government on an issue by issue basis. While support for Israel may not materialize, and the US military may still be asked to withdraw (perhaps less likely if the Kurds are given more voice), a constitutional committee such as the one Arato described could tone down the Shiite religious influence in Iraqi law, guarantee a certain level of Kurdish autonomy, and otherwise reassure the Sunni minority that they will have access to power and the leadership of the new Iraq. That could help to make these elections as important a moment in the history of the region as some Americans predicted before the war, and all Americans should hope for at this juncture.

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