BAGHDAD — Ronald St. John, a political consultant with the International Republican Institute, recently asked some college students in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to define democracy. One student stuck up his hand and answered: “Democracy means you can disobey laws you don’t agree with.”
Iraqis have a lot to learn about democracy and not much time to learn it.
Six months from now, on Jan. 2, Iraqis who had been under dictatorship for decades and governed by U.S. authorities since April 2003 are to vote in genuine national elections. The 275-member Transitional National Assembly will replace the interim government that took over from the U.S. occupation authorities Monday, two days ahead of schedule.
The election of the national assembly — which will write an Iraqi constitution — would be a milestone in President Bush’s goal of spurring democracy in Iraq and having it spread across the Middle East. But the way is perilous and may not end the way the United States hopes. Among the pitfalls:
Violence could prompt the interim government to call off or delay the elections, although interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Monday that “the Iraqi government is determined to go ahead with elections on Jan. 2 of next year.”
Candidates may be targeted for assassination by those who oppose a democratic government, dissuading moderates from running.
Iraqis may be too afraid to vote if it could get them killed, or they may not see the benefit. Low turnout could mean less of a mandate for the new government.
The country’s ethnic minorities may say the vote is illegitimate if they gain few seats.
Outside regional powers, such as Iran, could seek to influence the elections for their own gain.
“The challenges are enormous,” says Carina Perelli, a United Nations expert who is advising Iraqis on how to conduct their election.
Perelli, who spent several weeks in Iraq this year, is confident most Iraqis look forward to the chance to elect those who govern them. “There is a solid majority more than eager to express their opinions if only they have a channel and they are certain there is not going to be retribution,” she says.
But at a recent briefing to the United Nations, Perelli warned that continuing violence is a threat.”You need to have a great improvement in the situation to be able to conduct the elections.”
Political organizations in Iraq have long been viewed with disdain by a population abused by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Iraqis have little or no experience with the nitty-gritty of electoral politics.
Imad Jasim, a political organizer with the Iraqi Independent Democrats, visited Karbala in the south of Baghdad last week to fire up party staffers and get them working on a local campaign platform.
“They all laughed and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I realized there was a gap” in knowledge about how electoral politics work, says Jasim, who lived in exile in London before the fall of Saddam.
Fielding candidates, devising political platforms, forming coalitions and learning to accept defeat and behave constructively in opposition are alien concepts to Iraq. For decades, all Iraqis knew were the sham elections of Saddam.
In 1987, the dictator got 100% of the vote, and in 2002, when he submitted himself to a yes-or-no vote without an opponent, he got 99.9%.
Karim Keshash al-Khazali, 47, a former Baathist who worked as an election observer under Saddam, found 19 “no” votes among the 1,000 ballots he counted on election night 2002. “It was a celebration more than it was an election,” says al-Khazali, now a taxi driver.
Wealthy families seeking to ingratiate themselves with Saddam would donate heaping platters of rice and lamb, cakes and candies to the polling stations. Voters would be given flowers in appreciation for doing their civic duty. Many Iraqis voted only because they were scared not to.
Political campaigning can be lethal in a country where car bombings, assassinations and other terror attacks are regular events. As the U.S. military tries to crush the militants and terrorists responsible, it also will provide security for members of the interim government with the assistance of Iraqi police and security forces.
The reliability of those Iraqi forces is uncertain.
“You are in for an incredibly unstable period with the reorganization of Iraqi forces,” says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and officers are being trained and deployed every week by coalition members and others to keep the peace. Cordesman says it’s unclear whether these forces can restore order. “One way or another, this government has to become legitimate,” he says.
One way may be martial law — or something like it. In an interview with CBS Saturday, Allawi said the government needs to “take actions and measures against criminals, apprehend them, question them … and impose curfews.” He added: “It wouldn’t be martial law.”
However, an election held under such circumstances could be viewed as unfree and illegitimate.
“I hear increasingly from Iraqis that the interim government sees itself as far from interim,” says Michael Rubin, an Iraq expert at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin worked for the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority.
If Iraqis are not able to freely choose their leaders, Rubin says, it could be seen as a betrayal akin to the U.S. decision in 1991 to evict Iraq from Kuwait but leave Saddam in place. It would also thwart the Bush administration’s plan to leave behind in Iraq a model to inspire change in Arab dictatorships.
Dividing, not uniting
Then there is the risk that an election will divide the country rather than unite it behind a new leadership.
“A Kurd will give a vote to a Kurd, an Arab to an Arab, a Shiite to a Shiite,” says Ayad al-Samarie, assistant secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which represents the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.
Any election that takes place too soon will be decided along ethnic, religious or tribal affiliations, al-Samarie says. If one ethnic or religious party winds up with too much power, others may refuse to acknowledge the outcome or to recognize the authority of the new Iraqi government. “We need some time until we elect a man not for what he is but for his program,” al-Samarie says. “We are building something on sand, without roots. It could collapse.”
Saddam crushed parties
Under Saddam, established political organizations such as the Daawa Party, which represents the majority Shiite Muslim community, and the secular Communist Party of Iraq were ruthlessly crushed. Their members were liquidated or forced underground or into exile.
Since Saddam’s fall, these parties have quickly re-established themselves.
Groups such as the Kurdistan Islamic Union have taken over offices and put up signs out front. A week after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, the Communist Party occupied former military housing on the capital’s fashionable Abu Nuwas Street and was publishing its long-suppressed newspaper, Tariq al-Shaab (Path of the People). The Communists now have 90 offices across the country.
They have emerged as particularly enthusiastic students of free elections. The Communists have scrubbed their platform of anti-democratic notions such as Leninism and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” although portraits of Lenin and Marx are still mounted to the wall of their headquarters. “The way to socialism is not revolution, but elections,” says Shaker al-Dujaili, a Communist official.
The Communists even have been sending their members to election workshops sponsored by the International Republican Institute, an arm of the staunchly anti-Communist U.S. Republican Party.
There are some grounds for optimism. A survey earlier this year of 3,200 Iraqis by Oxford Research International, a British research firm, found that 90% of Iraqis want democracy. And, in a finding that suggests a democratic Iraq might not divide along ethnic or religious lines, 86% said they believe the Iraqi government should represent all the major groups in society.
To help ensure Iraqis see their election as legitimate, the United Nations helped create an independent, seven-member election committee to oversee the process. The CPA and United Nations also have banned parties associated with armed militias from participating in the election — but they admit the ban will be almost impossible to enforce.
The CPA recently gave the election committee power to disqualify parties and candidates. But some Iraqi political aspirants say that power is too broad. There is talk of trying to revoke it after the hand-over of sovereignty.
Despite its flaws, analysts and politicians defend the process, saying there’s no way to devise a perfect plan for elections. “The most important thing is to start, and we have started,” says Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Daawa Party official and an interim vice president.
Jasim, a member of the Iraqi Independent Democrats, expects three or four political blocs to be the big players: secular democrats unaffiliated with religious movements; Arab nationalists; Kurds; and the major Shiite movements.
Iraq has many tribes whose leaders have a powerful influence over their people in a region or village. Some parties are currying favor with tribal leaders to gain their support. Politicians, including members of the now-defunct Governing Council, are giving important tribal chieftains gifts, such as new cars. But some recipients complain the vehicles “aren’t as nice as the ones Saddam gave away,” says St. John of the International Republican Institute.
The political jostling has already begun for the 100-member Supreme Commission. The commission is responsible for choosing the 1,000 delegates to a National Conference in July, which will in turn choose a 100-member Interim National Council that will advise the interim government of Allawi until the elections.
Potential candidates see the commission as a way to showcase themselves and divvy out political favors to be collected on in the future. It was originally meant to have around 60 members.
“Why is it 100 now?” says Commission Chairman Fuad Masoum, a Kurdish leader. “Because everyone wanted to be on the commission.”
Many say the success of the election may hinge on its details.
The United Nations endorsed a plan that treats Iraq as one big legislative district instead of numerous local districts. Parties will get seats in the National Assembly according to the percentage of votes they receive on a national ballot.
A key reason for the decision: Election planners lacked reliable census data to carve up the country into legislative districts. The setup also makes it easier for the 4 million Iraqis living abroad to vote and lets a Kurd in mostly Arab Baghdad cast a meaningful vote for a Kurdish party that either wouldn’t appear or wouldn’t stand a chance on a Baghdad ballot.
Party-slate system criticized
Voters will not vote for individual candidates. They will vote for a slate, or list of candidates, put together by the political parties they represent. That will make candidates less visible and therefore less likely to be targeted for assassination, the United Nations says.
Rubin say the plan is a mistake.
“The party-slate system is more vulnerable to outside interference than constituency elections,” he says. “It’s easier for the Iranians to pump money into a national party slate than it is for them to fund 275 different candidates.”
But the biggest concern all around appears to be violence and intimidation.
Nine Communist Party workers have been slain in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad. A Daawa Party leader, Izzadine Saleem, was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad in May while serving as president of the Governing Council. Allawi has been threatened with death.
“If security does not improve, it is going to be impossible to hold free and fair elections,” says Larry Diamond, a Stanford University expert on emerging democracies. “Yet postponing the elections beyond. .. would also risk a political blowup. We are really in a race against time.”
Contributing: Wiseman reported from Baghdad and Slavin from Washington.Top