Democratic Underground

Iraq's Election Will Not Guarantee Democracy

February 9, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard

The Bush administration was understandably happy with the Iraqi election. Despite the death of approximately 50 people, 57 percent of the eligible population voted. President Bush declared that "The people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom."

However, a quick glance at recent history easily dispels the myth that elections lead to democracy and freedom.

After three years of political disagreements between Muslim and socialist political parties in Algeria, both sides agreed to participate in free elections in 1991. The Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of parliamentary elections, garnering 59 percent of the vote. As the country prepared for a second round of elections, the High Council of State, which was backed by the socialist National Liberation Front, cancelled the elections and appointed socialist politician Mohammed Boudiaff as president. This sparked nine years of civil war in Algeria, resulting in the death of over 100,000 people.

Jonas Savimbi, guerilla leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, was prompted by the Reagan administration to discontinue fighting the government and agree to national elections in 1992. Although Savimbi was a folk hero to some, the country voted for the communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party by a 20 percent margin. Savimbi invalidated the elections, calling them fraudulent, despite the United Nations declaring the elections to be fair. Civil war erupted, partially sparked by the Angolan people who felt cheated when their votes were cast aside, which lasted until 2002.

Charles Taylor, the popular rebel leader of Liberia, agreed to discontinue his seven year war against dictator Samuel Doe and submit to national elections in 1997. Liberians went to the polls in record numbers, with 85 percent of the population voting. Taylor was elected president with 70 percent of the vote. But within two years Taylor became dictatorial himself, and guerilla movements attempted to overthrow his government. This plunged the country into a civil war that lasted until 2003, when Taylor was indicted for war crimes and fled the country.

Although the election of a national assembly to draft a constitution may lead to democracy in Iraq, it is equally possible that it may not. If the constitution is not ratified, it may well spark civil war. And the interim government has made it too easy to reject the constitution. Under the ratification rules, all that is required to defeat the constitution is for any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to veto it by a two-thirds vote.

Early election results indicate that the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition, has garnered the majority of the votes counted so far. As such, they will have considerable influence in drafting the constitution. Although the Alliance has publicly stated that they do not want a theocracy, their two largest constituents, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, are backed by Iran, and both have privately called for a religious commonwealth. Yet in a recent poll, 59 percent of Iraqis do not want a religious government. If the Alliance drafts a constitution that allows Shiite clerics to wield too much power, it will be rejected by secularists and Sunnis, and civil war might well be the outcome.

The Kurds turned out in large numbers as an affirmation of their separatist movement. In the Kurdish north, those who voted for the national assembly were also asked to vote on an unofficial referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. Estimates suggest that 90 percent of Kurds voted in favor of independence. This past February, various Kurdish organizations attempted to present the American administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, with a petition containing 1.7 million signatures in support of an official Kurdish vote on independence, but they were turned away.

However, it will not be so easy to continue to ignore the Kurds. The Kurdistan Regional Government has called for full control over exporting their region’s petroleum. But Iraq's finance minister recently stated that he hopes a law will be passed to allow for foreign businesses to invest in Iraq’s national oil company, suggesting that this "...is very promising to the American investors and...certainly to oil companies." Unless the constitution supports Kurdish independence, it will almost certainly be rejected, given that the Kurds control four provinces.

Many in the minority Sunni population boycotted the election as a protest against American influence in Iraq. Some Sunni polling places reported that no one showed up to vote. Consequently, only a small portion of Sunnis will help write the constitution. And since it appears that the Shiite coalition will dominate the national assembly, the Sunnis are likely to feel increasingly alienated and disenfranchised.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, the highest Sunni authority in Iraq, has already declared the election to be invalid and that the constitution will not be legitimate. The association warned that if the next Iraqi government is given legitimacy, "... this will open the door wide for evil which the international community...will bear its consequences." In a recent poll, 53 percent of Sunnis said that the insurgents' attacks were a legitimate form of resistance. Unless the national assembly incorporates Sunni opinions into the constitution, their isolation will cause the insurgency to grow. And if they reject it, which they could do since they control three provinces, Iraq may find itself in a civil war.

The Iraqi people should be applauded for going to the polls. But the Bush administration should not construe voting as a guarantee of democracy. As is frequently the case, elections have a way of producing unintended and sometimes tragic consequences.

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