The Wrong Elections For Iraq
By Michael Rubin
Saturday, June 19, 2004; Page A23
On June 30 the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq will cease to exist. A caretaker Iraqi government will run the country until elections in January. While the transfer of sovereignty is a watershed, Iraqis say true legitimacy will come only with the elections.
But now technocratic decisions having to do with these elections are threatening to undercut the durability of any democracy in the country. There are two ways to hold direct elections: by party slates, with each party gaining representation according to its portion of the vote, or by single-member constituencies, somewhat like our own congressional districts. On June 4 Carina Perelli, head of the U.N. electoral advisory team in Iraq, endorsed party slates.
When I was a roving CPA political adviser, I lived outside the Green Zone and interacted not only with Iraqi politicians but also with ordinary people. Voting was the topic of conversations at teahouses and mosques. Islamist parties tended to favor a party-slate system. Advocates of an Iranian-style Islamic republic were blunt: "The first article in a democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority," Sayyid Hadi Modarresi, one of Karbala's most influential clerics, told the Arabic daily Al-Hayah.
Liberal Iraqis favor constituency-based elections. The Transitional Administrative Law calls for a 275-member National Assembly, which translates into each district's member representing approximately 87,000 people. Contests would occur not between parties but between individuals, who would be accountable to local residents rather than party bosses. Former Governing Council members condemned as irrelevant by CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer could win some districts. Raja Khuzai, an outspoken Shiite advocate for women's rights, is popular in her home town of Diwaniyah. Residents of Khadimiya favor Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi. A religious party leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, is popular in Najaf. Less successful would be uncharismatic, corrupt or abusive party hacks who hope to win power on the coattails of party bosses.
Older Iraqis also favor constituencies. Distrust of political parties is deeply rooted. One recent poll indicated that political parties have only a 3 percent favorability rating. Pensioners remember the 1960s as a time of pitched street battles between adherents of leftist and nationalist parties. Younger generations view parties through the lens of the Baath Party experience, in which employment depended on a party membership card. Distrust of parties extends to Iraqi Kurdistan, where I taught in the 2000-01 academic year. With few exceptions, my students associated local Kurdish parties with corruption, abuse of power and nepotism.
Even Perelli, the U.N. official, acknowledged Iraqi ill feeling toward political parties. "The anti-political party feeling of the population is extremely high," she told journalists in May. But at her news conference this month, Perelli explained her rationale for abandoning the accountability of single-member constituencies in favor of pursuing party-slate elections. "There are a lot of communities that have been broken and dispersed around Iraq," she said, "and these communities wanted to be able to accumulate their votes and to vote with like-minded people."
With that one sentence, Perelli would set Iraq on the slippery slope to the failed Lebanese-style communal system. According to an Iraqi electoral commission member, Bremer agreed to a party-slate system to bypass the tricky question of who votes where, thereby trading Iraq's long-term health for short-term expediency.
The U.N. endorsement of a party-slate system fails to correct the mistakes of the past year. While Bremer condemned the Governing Council as irrelevant, the truth was more nuanced. Many Iraqis adopt the same "throw-the-bums-out" mentality that Americans voice about Congress, even while supporting their own representatives. Distrust of the Governing Council was more pronounced in towns such as Kut, which had no representation, than in cities, such as Najaf, which were represented. Even in Iraq, politics is about patronage.
The party-slate system will not bolster representation. Many Iraqis share ethnicity but not local interests. Tel Afar, a town of 160,000 east of Mosul, is 95 percent Shiite Turkmen. Its Turkish-speaking residents have little in common with Turkmen in Erbil or Kirkuk. The party-slate system might also undercut religious freedom. Christians, for example, represent less than 3 percent of Iraq's population. They remain concentrated in towns such as Alqosh, Ainkawa and Duhok. Many Christians do not support parties such as the Assyrian Democratic Movement. Without district-based elections, they may find themselves without representation. Smaller religious communities that do not have their own political parties but who live in clustered districts may find themselves without political representation in the important constitutional process.
Four years ago, my University of Baghdad-trained translators repeatedly stumbled over words such as tolerance and compromise, concepts that simply did not exist in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Now, with the decision to transfer responsibility for Iraq to an international body concerned more with technical convenience than with democracy, the White House threatens the future stability of Iraq. A one-person, one-vote, one-time election based on communal identity may please men like Hadi Modarresi, but Iraqi democrats will view it as a betrayal of their future.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company