As true lovers of liberty predicted, Iraqis made the most of their access to the ballot box Sunday. They set a brave example for the Arab world by defying terrorist murder threats in order to select a new national assembly. The TV images of joyous voters were inspiring to a watching world, except perhaps to the clutch of politicians with a poisonous hatred for the U.S. administration that brought it about.
But as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on the talk shows Sunday, the election, dramatic as it was, is only a first step. Now, the assembly must select a government, draft a constitution and hold new parliamentary elections before the end of this year. Members will have to learn the game of politics, with its arts of persuasion and compromise. How well they do that will be the test of whether the volatility so often present in Arab societies can be channeled into constructive endeavors.
There will be plenty of naysayers who will pick at every flaw to claim that Iraqis are incapable of self-government. They will predict that the assembly will be torn apart by quarrels and divisions, provoking civil war or a new dictatorship. Plenty of precedents throughout a region famed for Ottoman satrapies, colonial diktats, tribal wars, religious fanaticism, coups and treachery can be cited to support that pessimistic view. Indeed, maybe the Cassandras will be proved right.
Or maybe they won’t. The odds that the Iraqis will learn the give and take of democratic politics are better than the pessimists think. Contrary to popular belief, the very diversity of the country’s ethnic and religious makeup is a positive force. It creates strong pressures on all incumbents to build legal institutions, if only for self-protection.
Even the dominant Shiites, who have divisions within their own ranks, already seem to have grasped that it would be a serious mistake to deny rights to the minority Sunnis and Kurds. The Shiites suffered enough under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny to understand how oppression of any group disturbs the social order and thwarts nation-building. Iraqis have had enough sectarian strife to understand its horrors.
An attitude of tolerance already is evident. The interim authorities appointed by the U.S.-led coalition chose a proportional representation system for Sunday’s election, precisely so that minority parties would have a voice in the new assembly. Proportional representation is not an ideal way of selecting a legislature because the very protection it gives small parties often entangles the law-making function with obstructionism and factionalism. But in Iraq’s case, PR was a promise that everyone, even the Sunnis who once supported Saddam, will have a voice.
Mainstream Shiites also have been wary of suggesting that they have hopes of installing Sharia (Islamic) law like that of the radical Shiite ayatollahs next door in Iran. One thing Saddam accomplished as an Arab socialist that might serve the new regime well was to secularize much of Iraqi politics. That Islamists would have a hard time rolling back the clock in Iraq was evident in the pictures of women lining up at the polls, many of them unveiled. Arab socialism, for all its crimes, served as a women’s liberation movement in those parts of the Arab world it penetrated.
Finally, there is the matter of legitimacy. When all the votes are counted, the Iraqi people will have granted a mandate to all of the 275 members of the assembly. Every one, whether he be sheik or camel driver, will have but one vote and none can claim to be deserving of unique powers. Representative democracy is a great leveler and also a great harmonizer among politicians of different religious or cultural backgrounds.
The U.S. role in this process will be to continue improving security against the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader who vows to destroy this “evil democracy.” Training Iraqi soldiers and police is a high priority.
The U.S. is helping in other ways. The Democratic and Republican party branches of the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy have been working quietly to teach Iraqi politicians the rudiments of political campaigning and the conduct of free and fair elections. The NED groups, which pull in teachers from other democracies to internationalize the training, have proved excellent midwives for other transitions from authoritarianism to representative government. Many non-governmental organizations and business groups are playing a role in Iraqi reconstruction and will become more useful as the new government gets better control of internal security.
None of this is to posit some new era of tranquility. One could hardly say that even American or British politics are free of rancor. But the beauty and strength of democracy derives from free and open expression. Elected politicians don’t have to resort to torture and oppression to hold their power. All they have to do is prove to be good servants of their constituencies.
When the new Iraqi national assembly meets, the world will witness a spectacle seldom seen before, an Arab parliament engaged in passionate debate on how to shape the country’s future. The six major party groupings, representing Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, secular, monarchists and various subgroups will interact, forming coalitions that might shift with each constitutional issue or government decision. There will be vigorous debate. The press will often seize on the more militant assertions to raise fears of an imminent breakdown into anarchy and chaos. But more than likely, we will just be witnessing the politics of freedom, something impossible when Saddam was enforcing “stability” — the stability of a prison.
The Iraqis seem to know that the eyes of the world are on them. If they can make their experiment work, the Middle East will be changed forever. Iraq’s neighbors, practitioners of old-style authoritarianism, will have a new Arab republic in their midst, demonstrating that Arabs have the same capacity to rule themselves as any other ethnic group. The Iraqis will be following in the footsteps of other nations that have made this transition as freedom has spread around the planet. It’s no wonder Iraqis were so excited as they braved bombs and bullets to cast their votes Sunday.Top