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Ivan Eland: Are Iraqi Elections a Panacea?

Are Iraqi Elections a Panacea?

By Ivan Eland*
January 31, 2005

President Bush, in his second inaugural address, used soaring idealistic rhetoric to tell us that he was going to democratize the Middle East. After the recent Iraqi elections, he declared a triumphant moment in that effort. Yet those elections—with their predictable results—may not mean much for the future of Iraq and might, when combined with other U.S. policies in the Islamic world, reinforce world perceptions of U.S. foreign policy as hypocritical.

Iraqis should be commended for risking their lives to vote. Sadly, it may ultimately be in vain. The heavy turnout in Shi’ite localities and the light turnout in Sunni areas were predictable. The problem is that the Sunni insurgents may actually benefit from the increased estrangement of the Sunni community from the rest of the country, once it becomes clear the Sunnis are underrepresented in the new national assembly. The heavy voter turnout in the Shi’ite areas is not an endorsement of the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. Instead it reflects a desire for the traditionally oppressed Shi’a to rule the other ethnic groups and the novelty of a real choice in elections after decades of sham plebiscites under multiple dictators.

Merely having elections doesn’t guarantee that a unified Iraq will achieve a violence-free liberal federation. If the elected Shi’ite regime governs oppressively, the Sunni rebellion will be further inflamed. In any democracy, the majority—if given political power—can oppress minorities. After all, the Sunnis are now fighting, in part, to prevent “paybacks” from a Shi’ite government for all of the oppression that the Sunnis dished out to the Shi’a over the years.

The Kurds—the other substantial minority in Iraq—have been friendly to the U.S. occupation and turned out in large numbers to vote. If the new government doesn’t allow them to keep the autonomy they have enjoyed since the first Persian Gulf War, they could get surly very quickly. From the time of Iraq’s creation in the 1920s, the Kurds have never wanted to be part of Iraq but were forced to do so by the British and subsequent Sunni rulers. Their militias are the strongest in Iraq.

Thus, democracy matters less in Iraq today than does liberty—that is, minority rights. Many despotic governments have come to power through elections, including Hitler’s Third Reich. Although the Shi’ite politicians are paying lip service to the notion that they will avoid an Iranian-style “Islamic republic,” that is their preference. If minority rights are not honored, civil war is very likely to occur.

Even if the election in Iraq was “free,” which is difficult to determine because the violence in Iraq prevented most international observers from doing their jobs, it was held with nearly anonymous candidates and within the constraints imposed by the U.S. occupation. True self-determination in Iraq would probably result in a partition, a loose confederation of autonomous regions, or a combination of both. But those choices were not on the ballot. The Bush administration’s naïve and narrow vision of replicating a U.S.-style federation in a unified Iraq was the only game in town.

Yet experts on federalism are usually pessimistic about U.S.-style federations being successful in countries where strong ethnic or religious factions exist to pull a federated government apart. In Iraq, fighting is likely to ensue over control of the central government, because it has traditionally been used to oppress groups not in power. So genuine self-determination, most likely resulting in a weak or nonexistent central government, would actually be the most stable and sustainable in the long-term.

In the Islamic world, the U.S.-driven elections in Iraq are perceived as hypocritical in light of other U.S. actions. The United States has closed “unfriendly” newspapers in Iraq and is pressuring the Qatari government to shut down Al Jazeera, the most independent media outlet in the Middle East. According to the New York Times, the administration objects to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S. occupation of Iraq—especially reports on Iraqi civilian deaths in the U.S. assault on Falluja—and reporting on internal repression within the borders of U.S. Mideast allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the United States’ closest friends in the Islamic world are the autocratic dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan—a nation that has become less democratic as the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has become closer.

Thus, the Iraqi elections are unlikely to have a ripple effect in a region that is already cynical about U.S. motives. The overly hyped plebiscite will probably do no more to stanch the downward spiral of violence in Iraq and the deepening U.S. quagmire there than the killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons, the capture of the dictator, the nominal handover of power last summer, and the recapture of Falluja. In sequence, the Bush administration propaganda machine touted them as keys to ensuring a secure and prosperous Iraq, but none of those events made it happen. The Iraqi election will probably fare no better.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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