IRAQ: Democracy’s Prospects in Iraq

February 3, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What are the prospects for democratic transformation

Many experts say Iraq will have some form of elected government within 18 months. That relatively quick timetable, some say, could result in a government that lacks widespread legitimacy and the capacity to govern effectively. And experts caution that ongoing violence in Iraq and potential disputes over a new constitution and election laws could delay or derail progress. "It’s going to be a very tricky process," says Daniel Brumberg, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What determines the schedule?

Two main factors. First, there is mounting international pressure to accelerate the transfer of authority to the Iraqi people from the U.S.-dominated occupation authority. Second, there is widespread speculation that the Bush administration wants elections in Iraq to occur before the U.S. presidential election in November 2004.

What’s the timetable for elections?

Secretary of State Colin Powell announced September 26 that a new constitution should be completed within six months. After that, Iraqis will conduct a census, determine who is eligible to vote, and draw election districts. Finally, a vote will take place and sovereignty will shift to the new government.

What kind of government will Iraq have?

It has not been decided. If all goes as planned in the coming months, an Iraqi constitutional committee will resolve such key issues as:

  • Whether Iraq will have a parliamentary or presidential system.

  • How many states Iraq will have, the borders of those states, and the amount of power the states will have relative to the central government.

  • The role of Islam in the Iraqi government.

Many experts expect consideration of these issues to be difficult and divisive.

Does Iraq have any experience with democracy?

A limited amount. Military dictators ruled Iraq for decades. But between 1932 and 1958, Iraq was a constitutional monarchy. It had an elected legislature, political parties, and a functioning court system. Civil liberties--such as freedom of the press--were somewhat respected. Yet real power remained in the hands of the monarch and elections were not free and fair, says Phebe Marr, author of "Modern History of Iraq" and a former senior fellow at the National Defense University. "Iraq has a tradition of political violence, and trouble with tolerance and compromise," Marr says. "In governance and building institutions, Iraq has a bad record."

Can democracy be imposed on a country?

Most experts say no. Foreign powers can arrange a vote, but that’s different from ensuring that the various groups in a country vying for power will abide by democratic practices and willingly cede control to the winner of an election. Most experts say it can take a generation or more to develop these so-called habits of democracy. From a practical perspective, that means that an elected government in Iraq will likely need the support of U.S. and coalition forces for years, says Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who, between April and July, was senior adviser in constitutional law to the occupation government in Baghdad.

Would awarding more power to Iraqi leaders now hasten

It’s unclear. The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), a 25-member body appointed by the U.S.-led occupation government, has little real power. In recent days, its leaders have reportedly pushed for more control. Zaab Sethna, an adviser to Ahmad Chalabi, the current president of the council, says boosting the IGC’s authority would assure Iraqis that coalition forces are liberators, as the U.S. government claims--and not an occupying army, as U.S. critics charge.

U.S. officials have made it clear they are not ready to cede control. A incomplete shift of authority--for example, seeming to grant powers to the IGC while leaving coalition forces in actual control of the country--could ultimately hamper the transition to democracy, some experts say. Underlying this dispute is the larger issue of who will exercise power in the new Iraq, Marr says. The IGC is dominated by Iraqi exiles like Chalabi, who beginning in the 1990s led a London-based opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress. "Turning over more power to the governing council now will help increase the power of the outsiders," Marr says.

What’s the status of a new Iraqi constitution?

The IGC has appointed a 25-member constitutional preparatory committee. That committee has about one month to come up with a procedure by which to select delegates to a constitutional convention, Feldman says. The convention--which will likely have between 100 and 150 members--will debate and approve the constitution. Many decisions, however, will probably be made in a central "drafting committee" where the most powerful political leaders will bargain over how to organize the government, Feldman says.

Who will be invited to the constitutional convention?

Some of the delegates will likely be chosen in a "bottom-up" process from throughout the country, perhaps nominated through existing town councils. Others will likely be appointed in a "top-down" process by members of the IGC, Feldman says.

Why is timing an issue?

Many experts caution that the process risks being seen as widely illegitimate if it is rushed. "It’s all going to be Mickey Mouse--there’s not enough time to do it right. The issues that need to be decided are huge," says Marina S. Ottaway, an expert on nation-building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. Other experts say that while the deadline is tight, the example of Eastern Europe and other new democracies shows that constitutions can be written on accelerated timetables. "It will be a difficult deadline to meet," Powell acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times, "but we’ve got to get them going."

A complicating factor: a religious edict, or fatwa, issued by the most powerful Shiite religious cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, called for the constitutional delegates to be popularly elected. Some members of the IGC and many experts oppose these elections, fearing they will hold up the process and "empower extremists" such as Baathists and well-organized radical Islamists, Feldman says. One compromise might be to subject the entire slate of convention delegates to a general up-or-down referendum, or make the final document subject to a popular vote. But if the population votes no on either question, it would delay the timetable further.

What role is Islam expected to play in the new state?

Islam will likely be the official state religion in Iraq, as it is in countries throughout the Arab world, Feldman says. But he adds that he expects the constitution will grant freedom of religion and equal rights to all citizens, and so form the basis of a tolerant, liberal democracy. Other experts warn that this issue will likely remain divisive in years to come, no matter what the new constitution says. "There’s always been an uneasy coexistence between religion and politics in Iraq," says Yitzhak Nakash, author of "The Shi’is of Iraq" and a professor at Brandeis University. "When there has been separation of church and state in Iraq in the past, it has always been accompanied by violence."

What other issues need to be resolved?

  • Security. A free and fair election can’t occur amid violence and intimidation. This problem may be compounded if armed militias tied to political figures and parties are used to maintain security in Iraq before the vote, experts say.

  • Ethnic balance vs. effective government. Seats on the IGC were awarded in light of considerations of ethnicity, religion, and tribe. But a nation cannot govern effectively through a system of ethnic quotas and Iraq’s record of developing effective governance coalitions is poor, Marr says.

  • Sunni alienation. Arab Sunnis, who dominated Saddam Hussein’s government, have fiercely resisted coalition rule. Yet their participation in the writing of a constitution and determining Iraq’s political future is essential to ensure the country’s stability.

What are the major post-election challenges?

The major challenge is what some scholars refer to as democratic "consolidation"--strengthening institutions to ensure that peaceful elections become the standard way of transferring power. Most scholars predict this will be difficult in Iraq. "Given Iraq’s repressive history and profound ethnic and religious cleavages, democratization will be lengthy, messy, and full of twists and turns," wrote democracy expert Thomas Carothersof the Carnegie Endowment in a July op-ed.

Another key issue: whether the new government will be able to make compromises and govern. "The message has to come across to Iraqi leaders that politics is not a zero-sum game. For many of them, it’s still a zero-sum game," Marr says.

What’s a reasonable definition for Iraqi success?

While Bush administration officials say they would like Iraq to one day serve as an example of democracy for countries in the Middle East currently under authoritarian rule, their short-term objectives are more modest. "By success [in Iraq], I mean a constitution, elections, orderly transfer of sovereignty," Bush said in a September 22 interview with Fox News. "At the same time, reconstruction, as well as making Iraq more secure. That’s essential to the long-term security of the United States," he said. Experts agree that a liberal, Jeffersonian-style democracy in Iraq is a long way off. A reasonable short-term hope for Iraq, Nakash says, is "a decent government that primarily serves the Iraqi people."

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