Sunday, January 16, 2005

# Posted 9:27 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

POSTPONE THE ELECTIONS? Larry Diamond is one of America's most respected scholars of democratization in the developing world. One week ago, he argued in the NY Times that going ahead with elections on Jan. 30 may derail democracy in Iraq.

Diamond makes a number of valid points, especially regarding the ways in which a voting system based on proportional representation will unfairly damage Sunni interests. Yet Diamond simply seems to ignore the major arguments against a postponement. For example, Diamond writes that
Sunni political and social leaders are not calling for an open-ended cancellation of the election. They are requesting a one-time postponement of several months, in order to establish the "necessary conditions" for a fair and inclusive vote.
In contrast, one might argue that in the absence of an election in January, conditions will be just as bad several months from now. Yet Diamond believes that negotiating with the Sunni leadership can ensure substantial Sunni participation in the next election:
Fortunately, it is no longer true, as has often been argued, that there is no one to negotiate with. Over the last few months, Sunni religious, tribal, civic and political leaders have begun meeting and forming alliances. At a conference in Tikrit on Dec. 23, Sunni representatives from seven provinces met, released a statement articulating their concerns and requests, and elected an "executive body" to negotiate on their behalf...

The outlines of a compromise are visible. The Sunnis could get a one-time postponement of the vote, an electoral system based substantially on provincial districts, and certain other political and administrative reforms. The leading Shiites, who have drawn together into the United Iraqi Alliance and seem set to win an election no matter when it is held or under what system, could get a commitment on the part of the Sunni opposition groups to end the electoral boycott and to work to reduce the violence, and thus to create a political situation in which their victory will be worth having.
But can the Sunni leadership really do anything to reduce the violence? Is there any reason to believe that insurgents will respect the requests of (relatively) moderate Sunni leaders? If the insurgents are given several more months to prepare for disrupting elections, should we really expect that much in the way of Sunni turnout, even if there are successful negotiations between the Sunni leadership and the Allawi government?

Diamond is correct to argue that holding elections now is hardly a cost-free proposition:
These elections will only increase political polarization and violence by entrenching the perceptions of Sunni Arab marginalization that are helping to drive the violence in the first place. This would not be the first instance when badly timed and ill-prepared elections set back the prospects for democracy, stability and ethnic accommodation. Think of Angola in 1992, Bosnia in 1996, Liberia in 1997.
Unfortunately, I don't know enough to comment on thesee examples of counterproductive elections that Diamond mentions. Of course, there are also positive examples, such as El Salvador in 1982.

Moving on, I think Diamond is right to suggest that voting with the current system will further marginalize the Sunnis. Yet given how marginalized the Sunnis already are and how much influence the insurgents have, should the United States or the Shi'ites and Kurds really want to take the dramatic risk of postponing the election in order to placate the Sunnis?

More importantly, Diamond ignores the benefits that will come with holding an election. First and foremost, Iraq will finally have a government chosen by almost 80% of its citizens, rather than one appointed primarily by the United States. With the government in their hands, the Shi'ite parties will have a very strong incentive to take ownership of the challenges facing the nation.

An elected government will also have the right to set the conditions under which Coaltion forces can stay in Iraq (or possibly be expelled). Of course, no one should think that the new government will be able to make an entirely independent decision about the fate of Coalition forces. Above all, Baghdad will still need someone to fight the insurgency for it.

Yet if an elected government permits Coaltion forces to remain, the Shi'ites will no longer feel that they are living under an full-fledged occupation regime. The presence of troops will still be problematic, but I think an election would put a permanent end to the kind of resentment that allowed Moqtada Sadr to launch his failed yet dangerous rebellions.

At this point, I think that the best course for the United States is to go through with the January elections and work behind the scenes to ensure that the constitutional assembly produces a document that addresses Sunni concerns. While it may be hard to persuade the newly-empowered Shi'ites to compromise, the same incentives that Diamond mentions will still be there.

In fact, the assembly might prove to be far more effective in negotiating with the Sunni leadership since it will have a democratic mandate, unlike the Allawi government. Instead of enticing the Sunnis with a postponed election, the Shi'ites can hold out the prospect of a constitution that favors district-based elections rather than proportional representation. If the assembly completes it work on time, then the Sunnis will be able to reap the benefits of a district-based system by the end of the 2005.

Admittedly, I have limited confidence in the ability of the United States to steer the assembly in the direction it prefers. Thus, the real question is whether the Shi'ite majority, once it has power, will live up to the ideals of democracy and tolerance it has advocated so consistently during the occupation. I believe it can.
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