Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Second Look At The Iraq Elections

In the interest of length, and perhaps relevance, I have moved some of the background portions of the original post to another location. If you wish to read more, you can click here. Otherwise, the discussion below regarding the various ethnic groups exerting influence in Iraq stands alone.

Tito Santana vs. Nikolai Volkoff

For obvious reasons, the conventional wisdom regarding Saddam Hussein's Baath regime is that it mirrored that of Saddam's political hero, Joseph Stalin. While this is probably accurate in terms of Saddam's personal style, preferences, and tactics, there is reason to liken the actual role he played in Iraqi society to another Communist dictator (who was himself a devotee of Stalinist ideals): Josip Broz Tito, the ruler of Yugoslavia during much of the Cold War.
Steve Clemons draws the parallel.

While many in this country were comparing Saddam Hussein to Stalin, I found another comparison to be Tito or Suharto, both of whom have been treated better by history than they probably deserve...

Tito brutally suppressed ethnic tensions and forced those of contending ethnic backgrounds to work and live together in a state that functioned as long as he was there as the pressure valve. When he died, the place simmered and then blew up.
Clemons made this observation while discussing a very interesting policy brief (pdf) by Marina Ottaway, which itself deals with the recent Iraqi elections and how that event has brought issues of ethnic and sectarian differences to the fore. Ottaway is a little cautious about some of the enthusiasm surrounding the elections, which in themselves do not make a democracy. In fact, although the turnout was truly commendable given the level of violence in the country, such numbers were not altogether out of the ordinary.

Yes, Iraqis voted and took considerable personal risk to do so. But all first elections following a period of repression attract a high level of voter participation. It is in countries where elections are routine and taken for granted that people do not bother to vote.
Although the turnout was an overall success, some of the patterns in the vote were problematic, and foretell of the pronounced divisions in Iraqi society that are actually growing in significance. In fact, the long term problems are such that the insurgency might not be the biggest threat to a stable, peaceful Iraq, as odd as that may sound.

The possibility that election results will be made irrelevant by the broader political context unfortunately exists in Iraq today. The insurgency is not defeated and violence continues, but this is not the most serious problem in the long run, although it is the most dramatically visible one in the short run. The greatest challenge to the consolidation of the democratic political process that the elections supposedly started is the nature of the vote. Iraqi citizens largely voted their identity in these elections. Kurds voted for Kurdish parties, Shias for Shia parties, and Sunnis voted very little. Few voted for parties that could be considered in any sense nondenominational. It should not come as a surprise that Iraqis voted this way. This happens regularly in divided countries where communal identities have become highly politicized, heightening tensions and even undermining the state.
I do not mean this as an endorsement of Saddam Hussein in any way, but it is undeniable that he was able to maintain unity much the way Tito and Suharto did in their own etnically diverse nations - through brute force. The problem now facing Iraq is how to forge a new Iraqi nationalist identity that can provide a cohesive force in the absence of a top-down order imposed through totalitarianist rule.

The most immediate challenge for Iraq is thus to find ways to accommodate its diverse population, with identities that are highly consolidated and politicized, into a new state. Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and several smaller groups have different demands, fears, and agendas. In the old state, from the founding of Iraq by the British in 1920 to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the U.S. invasion, Iraq's population groups were simply coerced to stay together....

Unless Iraqis succeed in creating a new state on the basis of consensus rather than coercion, there is no point in talking about democracy. And the rebuilding of states deeply split along communal lines is proving an elusive project around the world. Disturbingly, the experience of many states shows that democracy is not always the solution and can become part of the problem.
As Ottaway suggests, history provides little comfort, especially when the voting patterns occur along sectarian fault lines as they did on January 30th in Iraq.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia started with successful elections in Slovenia and Croatia that brought to power nationalist parties that rejected the old, multiethnic Yugoslavia in favor of new countries that identified with a specific group. Internationally supervised elections in Bosnia in 1996 confirmed the power of the ultranationalist parties, which have frustrated all efforts to put that country back together as a functioning state ever since. The power and destructive potential of communal voting must not be underestimated. It deepens conflict and tears countries apart. Reconstruction of countries undermined by communal conflict remains elusive even when the international community devotes large resources to it, as it did in Bosnia. Not only have Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union disappeared for good, but many of the new successor states are still struggling with their own continuing divisions.
Furthermore, the forces holding Iraq together have been weakened due to the facts on the ground, and the recent trends that have given new impetus to the demands of erstwhile repressed segments of Iraqi society.

Although divisions are deep, the factors that bring the groups together are weak now. In the past, Iraqis showed a degree of national cohesion when threatened from the outside. During the Iran–Iraq war, the country did not divide, and Iraqi Shias did not make common cause with Iranian Shias or Iraqi Kurds with Kurds in Iran. But that was when Saddam Hussein was still strong and the state was centralized. It was also before Kurds experienced autonomy and Shias saw the possibility of leveraging their numerical advantage into control over the state. Furthermore, at present there is no common enemy perceived as a threat by all groups in Iraq. Iran—or more specifically the possibility of a strong relation between Shia religious parties in Iraq and Iran—is seen as a threat by Sunnis, but not by all Shias. For at least some Sunnis, countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are a welcome counterweight to Iran. Turkey is a threat to the Kurds, but not to other groups. In other words, external actors at this point are not a common threat against which all Iraqis can rally, but are yet another factor that plays into the politics of the country’s divisions.
Back To The Future

The elections did little to assuage the concerns of the various groups, with the possible exception of the Shiites. The same problems exist today, in fact many are amplified by the new political realities, and there is little in the way of assurance that the new government will be willing or able to address the concerns of all parties involved. In truth, many of the aspirations and objectives are mutually exclusive, and often in direct conflict with one another, so there will inevitably be disgruntled parties. A simple rule of the majority will not be enough to satisfy all, and even a granting of individual rights, the establishment of a diverse cabinet, and a system of checks and balances does little to respond to the various group-defined goals.

The Kurds will likely secede if their demands are not met to a satisfactory level, regardless of whether or not they have a role in the cabinet. For the de facto disenfranchised Sunni population, the fact that an election occurred and that they might be included, albeit in a lesser role, in the cabinet has done little to improve their outlook as the one-time ruling faction and now marginalized group. As Ottaway pointed out, the US Civil War would not have been averted had Lincoln chosen a Southerner as a running mate. Such measures are largely cosmetic, while the important bartering occurs behind the consensus facade.

Another problem is that the process is on an accelerated time table, and many of these issues had not been sufficiently addressed or resolved beforehand. The result is that a fledgling state is stuck with the daunting task of trying to build a consenus government against the backdrop of constant violence, while most of the underlying fissures remain and are being injected into the process to manipulate their resolution (as per the Kurdish recalcitrance described above).
The absence of a true political process in the last two years has created a paradoxical situation in Iraq. As an instrument to start changing the relationship between the United States and Iraq and to indicate that the occupation is coming to an end, the elections were grossly overdue. With the Bush administration refusing to discuss its long-term intentions, the election date became the only visible marker of progress. From a domestic Iraqi point of view, however, the elections were grossly premature. They were held before major actors had reached any agreement about - indeed before they had even started discussing - the principles that should underlie the future political system of Iraq. And elections without broad agreement about basic issues, experience shows, are dangerous. They deepen rifts. They create winners and losers, making winners more arrogant and losers more resentful. They thus create a difficult environment in which to start negotiating compromise solutions.
The winners and losers are starting to take shape. The Shiites appear the winners, the Sunnis the losers, and the Kurds are major players operating as a fulcrum of power. The question now is the degree to which each party accepts its role with grace, nationalist pride, patience, generosity, non-violent resistance, and forbearance. The problem is, when people are gravitating to poles within society, and those poles are like totems built up around notions of ethnicity and religion, it is often the case that the spirit of a nation is lost like the proverbial forest amongst the many trees.

The hope is that Iraqis as a whole can build a sense of unity around a desire for peace and an end to the violence. That the voting population can build on the momentum of so important an event as the election, and the Sunni non-participants will grow tired of their outsider status. From that vantage point, all sides can begin to mend fences and build bridges, and hopefully stave off the conflicts that could lead to civil war and separation. Of course, that would require the Sunni population at large to reject the forces of the insurgency, an outcome that is not yet apparent or likely, as well as the granting of substantial concessions from the Shiites and Kurds. But the Iraqi people have shown themselves to be extremely resilient in the past. Let's hope that such qualities can guide them through such a precarious period as this.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?