Friday, October 07, 2005

A Dodged Bullet Or A Warning Shot

The project of helping Iraq evolve into a liberal democracy was always an ambitious one (glaring understatement) requiring a unique and fortuitous confluence of luck, military success, post-invasion management, enlightened indigenous leaders, favorable contextual conditions, skilled enablers found amongst the occupying forces, adroit and agile policy capable of instantaneous and far reaching flexibility, etc. The results so far have been mixed at best, with several red flags being raised as warnings of what might ensue in the near future.

While any nation building effort is problematic in the extreme, the particular characteristics of modern day Iraq present an even trickier model with which to work. There are bitter and historical grievances to settle on the one side of the ethnic/sectarian divide, and a loss of long held political power on the other - not to mention an ongoing and relentless campaign of violence that would be enough to unravel many an existing democracy, let alone forestall the creation of one ex nihilo. This violence and historical animosity makes it that much more difficult for moderate, conciliatory voices to win out over louder more confrontational ones - regardless of the faction. As I mentioned in a previous post, these factors negatively impacted the drafting of the constitution - which in the end fell short of being the inclusive document needed to attract enough Sunnis to make its codification the turning point hoped for by so many. At least so far.

The breakdown in that process is, unfortunately, symptomatic of larger problems endemic to nation building ventures: First, how do you help a population to form a democracy when there are so few democrats? Second, how can you invigorate a functional democracy without institutional undergirding supporting the fragile structure?

While there have been leaders in Iraq that have been more cooperative and helpful during the process (Sistani comes to mind as being a net positive so far), the issue remains whether even the most well intentioned Iraqis really grasp what "democracy entails." Yes, the concept of majoritarianism seems easy enough to get a hold of, (especially for the Shiites who can now reap the benefits of their majority status), but democracy, at least a healthy functioning version, is so much more than the edict that the majority rules. There needs to be respect for minority rights and interests, respect for institutional integrity along horizontal and lateral lines, respect for the rule of law and the rules of the game, etc.

In terms of an institutional framework, democracies require several loci of power and influence - an elaborate web of checks and balances capable of withstanding strains and eccentricities pushing and pulling in certain directions. These include, but are not limited to, a powerful and independent judiciary, a robust and free press, an open and free economic system relatively unfettered by corruption enabling a middle class to emerge, a civic minded populace, quality educational systems and a free flow of ideas, etc. Absent this matrix, power tends to be concentrated at the top, with the ruling faction's influence constricting the mechanisms of democracy that lead to liberal rule. A glance to Putin's Russia is instructive on how progress can succumb to backslide.

In Iraq, these institutions either did not exist, or were only in rudimentary form prior to the invasion. This has made the transformation to democracy a daunting task, and one that requires more time and attention than might be permitted under the break-neck pace of constitution drafting.

Over the past week, the Iraqi "democrats" simultaneously fired a warning shot off the bow of the Iraqi democracy project and dodged the same volley when they realized they were in the cross-hairs. I am speaking of the 11th hour rule change for voting on the constitutional referendum, and then the 11th and a half hour reversal. First the change:

In their vote on Sunday, the Shiite and Kurdish members interpreted the law as follows: the constitution will pass if a majority of ballots are cast for it; it will fail if two-thirds of registered voters in three or more provinces vote against it. In other words, the lawmakers designated two different meanings for the word "voters" in one passage.
Then the reversal:

Iraq's Parliament voted today to cancel a last-minute rule change that would have made it almost impossible for Iraq's new constitution to fail in the upcoming national referendum.
Even though they got it right in the end (after considerable pressure from the UN and the Bush administration - strange bedfellows these days), the initial gesture is worrisome to say the least. The rule change, or "clarification," was both disingenuous (because the Kurds and Shiites knew that they were changing an established principle whose meaning was understood by all) and deeply un-democratic. It betrays a crude conception of democracy as some sort of majoritarian juggernaut, when in fact democracy must be built on a mutual agreement or pact to play by the rules and solve problems through the political process, one which acknowledges compromise and the sharing of power. I quote Publius from the blog Legal Fiction:

Voting is fundamental in that it's the source and guardian of all our other rights. It is therefore extremely important that officials in power respect the voting process (a broader concept that includes not just voting itself, but redistricting, registration processes, trustworthy ballot machines, trustworthy election officials, fundraising disclosures, etc.). This broader voting process should be as transparent and as free from official meddling as possible. It should also be governed by clear ex ante rules to ensure legitimacy and accountability.
As pointed out, ex ante rules are of the utmost importance. They insure that the party or faction in power does not simply rig the system to ensure their maintenance of control. Without accepted rules, known beforehand by the population with an expectation that they are legitimate, there is nothing to ensure that political factions will remain committed to a process that they see as fair, just and capable of delivering their needs. That is not to say that such rules can and should never be changed, but such a last minute change, and for so obvious an ulterior purpose, as was undertaken by the Shiite/Kurd alliance was profoundly misguided. There was absolutely no respect for the process.

It was also the worst possible message to be sending the Sunnis. The constitution itself did little to assuage fears of what the new Iraq has in store for the Sunni population now bereft of influence, power and clout. But what this move told them was not only were they going to be held out of power, but even if there was a slight possibility that they could affect outcomes at the ballot box, that modest opening could and would be taken away from them by an overbearing majority bloc - on a whim. If we are trying to bring certain Sunnis into the fold and cause a splintering in the insurgencies, this is about the worst way to go about it (in the political realm). And if we want Iraq to serve as the catalyst for widespread democratic change in the region, we better hope that the Iraqis can forge a democracy that will be worth replicating and one that will garner envy amongst its neighbors.

It was important that the Shiite/Kurdish faction reversed themselves, but it does not bode well for the future of Iraqi democracy. There will not always be such a proximate and potent US influence. When we are gone, it will be up to the Iraqis to figure out the importance of playing by the rules. The record thus far, is not encouraging.

(cross posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

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