One of the formative experiences of my adult life was a visit with a group of friends to Portugal in April 1975. We went to see and feel what it was like when a dictatorship fell and citizens had the chance to vote in a free election for the first time in a half-century.
A collection of starry-eyed graduate students who thought we were immensely hardheaded, we arrived about a week before parliamentary elections. I will never forget the exhilaration that freedom spawned. In the cafes and on the streets, everyone from ages 19 to 91 was talking passionately about politics. Every wall and every ceiling was covered with political posters. On Election Day, people showed up early and waited hours to vote, cheerfully welcoming the gift of self-rule.
I recount the story to reveal the deep and unapologetic bias I bring to the news of Iraq's first free election in 50 years. The sight of dancing crowds and of the elderly making their way with slow determination to the ballot boxes rekindled the joy I felt three decades ago.
I'm less starry-eyed now and will shortly get to the caveats about Sunday's vote. But even opponents of the war and critics of President Bush should not be cynical about the immense courage shown by so many Iraqis, and by the troops protecting them. Nor should they -- we -- be cynical about the obvious superiority of even a flawed form of democracy over dictatorship. As John F. Kennedy might have put it, we observed on Sunday not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom.
In fact, the president's critics might take heart in the fact that while Bush was, in the end, immovable about Sunday's election date, the voting took place despite the earlier desire to postpone it. Only pressure from the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the Shiite community he leads forced the balloting before Iraqis wrote their constitution.
Yes, Sistani wanted quick elections because Shiites are the majority in Iraq and a democratic election was the most practical way for his community to demonstrate its numerical power. But there is a lesson here: When in doubt, the United States should prefer the risk of ceding power to Iraqis over the larger risk of holding fast to its own influence. Millions of Iraqis now have a palpable stake in a peaceful and democratic outcome.
But not all Iraqis, and here is why euphoria should be held in check. The Sunni Muslim minority, which has ruled over the Shiite majority and the Kurds concentrated in the north, did not, on the whole, take to these elections.
Some Sunnis voted, especially in mixed population areas. But polling places in the Sunni heartland were often desolate because of intimidation by insurgents -- a reminder that this war is far from settled -- and because many Sunnis are worried about their role in the future Iraq. Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat who has supported the war so far, noted after the polls closed that constitutional democracy has two parts: majority rule and minority rights. Preventing civil war means paying attention to the second half of the equation.
And a single, imperfect election does not mean that democracy has won. In the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, Larry Diamond, who served as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, makes the essential point. Under the wrong circumstances, he writes, elections "may only enhance the power of actors who mobilize coercion, fear and prejudice, thereby reviving autocracy and even precipitating large-scale violent strife." He cites elections in Angola, Bosnia and Liberia during the 1990s as cautionary tales.
Democracies also have to deliver the goods. Germany's Weimar Republic fell to Hitler in the 1930s because of severe economic problems combined with a sense among many Germans that democracy was a foreign imposition. Sound eerily familiar?
With admirable candor, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) acknowledged that he was "pleasantly surprised" at how well the elections went. But he is correct to note that the voting "doesn't change the reality of the insurgency -- the attacks will continue. It doesn't change the fact that the government cannot defend itself. It doesn't change the fact that the economy cannot support its own people."
Thus a modest proposal: Bush's critics should have no qualms about celebrating the outpouring in Iraq on behalf of democratic rule. Bush, in turn, should not pretend that the election means his policy has succeeded. This is exactly the right time for the administration to pay attention to its critics so that the joy of Sunday is not a one-night diversion.