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
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.