Politics & Policy

A Watershed Election

Iraqi democracy can turn a corner next month.

After the Iraqi parliament banned 500 candidates from contesting the March 7 national elections, Vice President Joseph Biden rushed to Baghdad to urge Iraqi political leaders to reconsider. While the ban has fueled U.S. cynicism about Iraqi democracy, such cynicism is unwarranted, especially now.

The Iraqi parliament’s decision did not wipe out Sunni candidates. Even the majority Shia lists are multi-sectarian. Iraqis say the controversy is really about rule-of-law and sovereignty issues. Across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum — and even in senior Iraqi military circles — Iraqis consider it likely that there will be a Baathist coup attempt following U.S. withdrawal, even if they disagree about its chances of success. Indeed, it is no coincidence the current defense minister is among those banned by parliament.

The White House and U.S. embassy in Iraq should be cautious about interfering in judicial matters. From an Iraqi perspective, their law is seldom as arbitrary as U.S. embassy whims or U.S. CENTCOM experiments. The Iraqi system now works. Already, several dozen disqualified candidates have won reinstatement through appeal. An overly active White House will fuel Iraqi distrust, which is already high because of the perception that the current administration is hostile toward Arab democracy. In offices and classrooms around the holy city of Najaf, the Shia religious leadership castigated U.S. military efforts — singling out Generals Petraeus and Odierno by name — to force reconciliation with recalcitrant Baath party members. “The Awakening [Council] model cannot apply to the Baath,” the son of one Grand Ayatollah said. “If they do not accept democracy, how can they govern it?”

Indeed, it is ironic that so many observers are bashing Iraqi democracy ahead of elections that can, more than any previous polling, cement Iraq’s democracy. In 2005, Iraqi leaders sought to dominate society. Shia and Kurdish leaders used militias to impose through force of arms what they could not achieve at the ballot box. Public reaction against their abuse of power, however, overshadowed the short-term dividends these political movements sought. In municipal elections last January and July, voters punished the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, both of which used militias to facilitate corruption and intimidate constituents.

This trend toward greater accountability will continue, as the Iraqi parliament has reversed the system of closed lists and party slates imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the United Nations. Previously, party leaders rather than constituents determined a politician’s success. In the new system, all candidates must appear on ballots and Iraqis can vote for individuals regardless of where they fall on the slate. No longer can party leaders fill lists with family members and corrupt functionaries and suffer no electoral consequences. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a reputation for honesty, the public will purge many of his subordinates who do not. One senior Dawa member predicted that only 50 percent of incumbents will remain in office. Kurdish leader Masud Barzani’s decision to visit Washington last week also stemmed from the realization that, given the public animus toward his party’s corruption and his functionaries’ abuse of power, the number of seats he controls (and, by extension, his leverage) will decline after the elections.

Municipal elections provide a window into Iraqis’ new realism. Governors took office only after negotiating power-sharing agreements. Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi, who governs in coalition with the ISCI, said his rivals realize that the electorate will punish both parties if they do not cooperate and deliver. Compare this with the Arab political norm: While one-party states and dictators dominate most countries, Iraqi politicians debate campaign strategies and candidate match-ups to maximize seats ahead of coalition negotiations. Indeed, Iraq is now one of only two Middle Eastern countries where ordinary people cannot easily predict their next leader. (The other is Israel.) Even Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a U.S. favorite, may find himself forced into retirement after March. “If Talabani can’t even manage his own political party,” one Shia leader remarked, referring to the collapse of Talabani’s political support among Kurds, “why does he deserve to lead Iraq?”

Still, Iraqis are wary and need international support. Confidence in the Independent High Election Commission is low after a bribery scandal in last summer’s Kurdish elections. Politicians worry that opponents polling poorly in specific districts might deliberately spoil ballot boxes to sway results in hotly contested races. Lack of international preparation to support electoral transparency has increased fears of a repeat of last August’s botched Afghanistan election. Any election-day chaos might hamper U.S. withdrawal plans.

Alternatively, successful elections will allow Iraq to turn a corner. Saddam will have been gone a decade when the new parliament’s term ends. As University of Baghdad students point out, Iraqis entering the university will have been eight years old when Saddam fell. Just as new generations in Eastern Europe finally put the past behind them, so too can young Iraqis. How sad, then, that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks of the “three Ds — diplomacy, development, and defense” — that define Obama’s foreign-policy philosophy, democracy is not among them.

– Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior editor at the Middle East Quarterly, recently returned from a trip through Iraq outside of U.S. military and security control.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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