So we have a country facing a national election during bloody sectarian conflict, with a significant portion of the electorate refusing to participate, but a timeline that mandates balloting on a specific day fast approaching. Should the election be postponed? Americans did not think so in 1864. Our country was facing a situation more deadly, more divisive, more significant than anything currently transpiring in Iraq. Federal authority was openly defied–in fact nonexistent–in a third of the country. An alternative government was operating, defended not by small groups of masked cowards with bombs but by a bloodied but still-dangerous conventional fighting force that had shown it could take on the U.S. Army in battle and win. Nevertheless, the 1864 election went ahead. It even included electoral votes from West Virginia, a state carved out of one of the areas in rebellion. Imagine the tuttings of the Kofi Annans of the time. Such irregularities. Can Lincoln’s presidency possibly be considered legitimate by the international community?
Lately there has been a significant buzz about delaying the January 30 elections for the Iraqi Transitional National Assembly and provincial governorships. The postponement proponents note the current climate of violence, and the problems in getting people to the polls in the less secure areas. The idea is to push back the election because of violence in hopes of seeing decreasing violence. This ignores the fact that if you reward bad behavior, you tend to get more of it.
There are two groups inside Iraq seeking delay. One is a collection of politicians in the predominately Sunni political parties who have stated that they will not participate in the election. Call them the Sunni boycotters. President Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni himself, has suggested that the United Nations may want to consider a postponement if that would persuade Iraq’s largest Sunni party and its associates to get back in the game. The Sunnis have a basic problem with democracy; they cannot change their minority status. To the extent Iraqi politics breaks down on ethnic lines–and in my opinion those cleavages are less important than we have made them–they cannot run the country the way they used to. Therefore, they choose to sit the election out. We saw this negotiating strategy in Afghanistan, where smaller parties went in and out of the process right up to and including election day. However, if the boycott is serious, it is foolhardy. Even Lenin called sitting out elections infantile behavior. It hands all the power to your opponents, leaving you with no way to mount opposition from within. The tactic has so alarmed the leaders of the Sunni majority states of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that they are urging the boycotters to relent. They fear that a Shia-dominated Iraq might become a tool for the Iranians, a charge both the Shia politicians and Iranians deny. Lately the Shia have been taking pains to show themselves as moderates, indifferent to Iran, and desiring Coalition forces to remain in Iraq after the election. So if the Sunni politicos choose not to get involved and the elected government is predominately Shia, what then? Then the Coalition deals with the legitimately elected government and life goes on. Maybe the Sunni parties will run next time.
The insurgents are also rooting for delay, or something worse. The radicals are ideologically hostile to democracy. Osama bin Laden recently decreed that any involvement in the “election game” is a transgression so serious it places a Muslim in the category of the unbeliever. Meaning, the voter/pol can be legitimately killed. The insurgents would just as soon destroy the process altogether, but a delay would be enough of an achievement to embolden them. Every time a new election date was set, they would ramp up the violence to see if they could push it back further. Handing the terrorists a triumph over the very structure of the new Iraqi political system would be an inauspicious precedent. Why even start down that road when every step is an admission of weakness?
Beyond rewarding poor behavior, delaying the election would compromise the legitimacy of the effort and disappoint the electorate. Most Iraqis want to vote, even the Sunnis. A late November poll showed that 20 percent in the Sunni areas strongly intend to vote, and 35 percent somewhat intend to. Only about 27 percent said they definitely would not participate. If the 55 percent of Sunnis who say they intend to vote actually do, they will be going to the polls at a rate higher than U.S. voters. Outside the Sunni areas polls show over 80 percent intending to vote. There is also consistent majority opinion against a delay. A poll of Iraqi public opinion in late September/early October asked whether elections should be delayed because of the security situation. Sixty percent said no. Only a fifth approved delay. A December 5 IRI survey showed 67.4 percent of Iraqis agreeing that their country will be ready to hold national elections on time, with 24.5 percent disagreeing. More to the point, a delay would hurt the image of the Coalition and the United States in particular. Compromising the timeline would confirm to many the propaganda line of the insurgency–that we are imperialist occupiers, that democracy is a sham, that we are insincere, and the postponement is designed to keep in place the puppet regime of Allawi. Meanwhile terrorists will step up attacks to create more delays. They have a word for bending the Coalition to their will like this. It’s called victory.
We already have a model of success in Afghanistan. The Coalition laid out a comprehensive timeline of steps towards building democracy, and helped the Afghans keep on schedule. In so doing, we gave them ownership of the process. There is a power in that kind of inevitability, a momentum that builds trust and legitimacy. Admittedly, conducting the election in Iraq will not be easy. Many forces will be at work attempting to derail it before the fact, and condemn it as inadequate afterwards. We cannot go into it expecting the process to be perfect. But we can at least help get it done on time.