The Iraqi election "bait and switch": Faulty poll will not bring peace or US withdrawal

Originally published


1. Introduction

President Bush was correct when he asserted on 2 December 2004 that it was "time for the Iraqi citizens to go to the polls."1 Indeed, it is long past time. Elections should have occurred a year or so after the fall of the Hussein regime. But the fact that they are overdue does not mean that an adequate foundation for meaningfully democratic elections has been laid. It has not. Unfortunately, the balloting due to take place on 30 January will not fulfill the promise of democracy nor satisfy the Iraqi passion for self-determination. For these reasons, it cannot bring peace. It is more likely to exacerbate civil strife.

Much attention has been focused on the problem of Sunni participation in the election, and rightly so. The election is supposed to figure centrally in the process of uniting the Iraqi nation and formulating its constitution. It is supposed to serve and embody a process of consensus building. But the abstention of any substantial part of the Sunni (or any other) Iraqi community - for any reason - undoes this central purpose and indicates that the necessary pre-conditions for the election have not been established. To proceed regardless of this fact is to revise the primary reason for conducting elections. And, indeed, the discourse on the election has shifted to place greater emphasis on its role as a weapon in the war of will and propaganda with Iraq's insurgents. Thus, delay is called tantamount to defeat. This raises the question of what comes first in deciding the policy on elections: the requirements of democracy or those of counter-insurgency?

1.1. Bait and Switch

The problems with the Iraqi election process do not end with the Sunni community. Relevant to all of Iraq's communities, the process as currently designed is little more than a "bait and switch" ploy.

The "bait" is the promise that by casting ballots Iraqis can reclaim their government and their sovereignly. With regard to governance, opinion polls have made clear what most Iraqis would like to see happen straight away. The polls leave no doubt that a majority (1) have lost confidence in the foreign-appointed Interim Government and (2) now want a quick end to the US military occupation and to the overbearing American influence that it undergirds. To put the matter bluntly: they want the United States out and do not trust the governing authorities it has put in place. Few sentiments unite Sunni and Shiite Arab majorities as well as these two. And these expressed sentiments can serve as a touchstone or litmus test for how well the elections fulfill their democratic promise. (See Addendum 1: Iraqi attitudes on the coalition, occupation, force withdrawal, and appointed Iraqi governments.)

Regardless of the balance of opinion among Iraqis - which is increasingly anti-occupation - the election will probably lead to a reassertion of something resembling the current status quo. This constitutes the "switch": Most Iraqis will go to the polls expecting to achieve one thing while actually legitimizing a different outcome. The advantages conveyed to select candidates and parties by the US mission will prove to be a pivotal input in deciding Iraq's future.

Certainly, the new national assembly will have a more Shiite complexion than the bodies that preceded it -- as is preferred by a majority of Iraqis. However, the government this assembly finally produces - that is, the Presidency Council, the Prime Minister, and the "power ministries" - will harken back to previous governing arrangements. The new executive bodies will prominently involve many of the same expatriate leaders and parties that the United States has advanced since it took control of Iraq. And, of course, the US occupation will not end. Indeed, no firm, near-term withdrawal date will be set. Most likely, the new government will link withdrawal loosely to the seating of a permanent government - a year or more in the future. But any "withdrawal schedule" that does not require that preparations for withdrawal get underway soon can only be regarded as tenuous or prospective.

One need not hypothesize a sudden and radical change of heart among the Iraqi electorate to foresee these outcomes. As explained below, they are determined by (1) structural features of the electoral process itself, (2) the circumstances in which the election is occurring, and (3) the broader balance of power in Iraq, which remains a country occupied by an actively partisan foreign power.

In short: both the structure and context of the political process will likely frustrate the will of the people. The election as currently designed is not merely "flawed." It is part of a counterfeit process that will impede the development of a truly sovereign and stable Iraq.

For the Sunni community, in particular, the democratic promise of elections has already been negated. For them, not even the bait is savory. As explained below, the elections offer the Sunnis a Hobson's choice -- ie. no choice at all: either participate and (thereby) legitimize a process that does not offer a solid guarantee of adequate representation in parliament or do not participate and risk an even less appealing outcome: decisive Shiite control of the Iraqi state.

(pdf * format 214.1KB)