October 22, 2004

Faster Democracy

In retrospect, one of the reasons that the Afghanistan elections seemed to go so well was that the major parties all had time to negotiate with each other. Or to put it more precisely, there was one odds-on favorite—Hamid Karzai—who, along with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, was very, very good at forming coalitions and exchanging favors.

Iraq, by contrast, seems to have a lot of catching up to do:
But the scene in the capital is marked by an absence of campaigning and public appearances. The big political parties, like Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have been mostly inert. Only a handful of campaign signs have been spotted around the capital, and the Independent Iraqi Election Commission has done little to announce its presence, though voter registration is set to begin Nov. 1.

Some party leaders say they are waiting for the security situation to improve before they meet with allies, hold public meetings and campaign openly. Some say that they have long lists of candidates, from places as ridden by turmoil as Falluja, who are ready to stand for office. The bargaining and horse-trading, they say, has already begun, but behind doors.
Here's the thing. If elections in Iraq are marred by violence and voter fraud, that's not a big deal. Really! Transitional elections have always been chaotic. Technically speaking, South Africa's 1994 election was a disaster—pre-election violence was high, KwaZulu/Natal province degenerated into anarchy for a few days—but the country basically turned out just fine.

What's really important here is the process of negotiation—the major ruling parties need to come to some understanding over a constitution, a mode of governing, power-sharing, etc. etc. Now in South Africa, that negotiation process had begun as far back as 1991, when Mandela and de Klerk where drafting a constitution, repealing apartheid laws, and discussing the workings of a unity government. It took three years to get those structures hammered out before elections could take place.

None of this groundwork is being laid in Iraq. The "horse-trading" described above is largely of the localized sort, and it's not real democratic bargaining; rather, it's the sort of thing that would be perfectly fine if Iraq was only electing a president—I vote for you, you give me an aqueduct, life is good. But Iraq's not voting for a president. It's trying to elect parties that are eventually expected to come together, draft a constitution, and resolve some pretty major disputes--the sort that make apartheid look like a playground squabble. You don't fix all that by letting Sunni tribal leaders swap a few favors here and there. You do that by getting all the major political actors together and actually talking about the future of the country. Before elections take place. That's why the loya jirga sessions in Afghanistan were so crucial.

By contrast, the interim Iraqi National Conference, which was elected in late August, was unfairly stacked with all the U.S.-backed parties—al-Dawa, SCIRI, INC, INA, KDP, PUK. Needless to say, these folks don't quite see eye-to-eye with the Sadrs, the Sistanis, or the Barzanis of Iraq. Meanwhile, the country's fabled proto-constitution, the Transition Administrative Law was sketched out by Bremer and a bunch of tin-ear exiles. There's been no democratic process. There's been no real negotiation among major party members. There's been no Constitutional Convention or loya jirga type forum for discussion. And now we just expect that whatever mix of tribal leaders, militants and fundamentalist clerics that get elected will simply sit down and work out their differences quietly and peacefully?

I hate to be shrill, but this plan sucks. So when someone like Josh Chafetz starts complaining that Kerry doesn't lust after democracy the way Bush does, I want to scream. "Democracy" isn't something you flip on with a light switch. Lust alone doesn't cut it. This is a delicate process, especially in a place like Iraq, and if you push it too far too fast, you can cause the whole country to topple.
-- Brad Plumer 2:28 AM || ||