How Iraq can fortify its fragile democracy
Millions of Iraqis risked their lives in March to exercise their fundamental democratic right to vote. Turnout was high -- exceeding 60 percent -- across the regions, ethnicities and sects that form our diverse nation. Iraqis are eager to put violence and strife behind them. Yet three months later, Iraq has no functional or stable government. This uncertainty threatens not just Iraqi society and democracy but also the region.
Our political alliance, Iraqiya, won the most votes and parliamentary seats in March. Iraqis from all sides and walks of life responded to our platform of democratic inclusion of all groups in the political process; of national reconciliation based on secularism and moving away from political, ethnic and sectarian religious divides; of law and order to create the conditions for a stable and prosperous nation, in harmony with its neighbors. This is the Iraq we wish to build.
Unfortunately, some elements in and outside Iraq are still attempting to undermine our fragile democracy. They have resorted to intimidation, arrests, baseless claims of fraud and endless demands for recounts. Despite others' questionable motives, we accepted these recounts. The Independent High Electoral Commission confirmed the March totals last month, and the Supreme Court of Iraq ratified the results. Iraqiya won 91 seats in parliament but cannot govern alone; we must build a stable and strong coalition that includes Iraqis from all groups in order to truly represent our nation.
The current, sectarian-leaning government has failed to deliver such fundamentals as sustained security, improved basic services and better job prospects. Although democracy is, at its core, about the peaceful transfer of political authority, and despite his failure to get the electoral results overturned, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to acknowledge his defeat or Iraqis' clear desire for change and national progress.
As the winner of the election, our political bloc should have the first opportunity to try to form a government through alliances with other parties. Yet Maliki continues seeking to appropriate that option for his party, defying constitutional convention and the will of the people. Because his bloc placed second, our slate wants to meet him, without preconditions, for face-to-face talks. We are determined to build a government based on competence and professionalism instead of ethnic or sectarian identities. Regrettably, Maliki has thus far declined to meet with us.
Iraqiya is also concerned about the threat posed by Iran, whose government invited the losing blocs to Tehran to broker a deal to form Iraq's next government. This plan would actively exclude non-sectarian Shiites, Sunnis and non-Muslims from any representation and would push Iraq ever deeper into an Iranian sphere of influence. In short, it would guarantee a return to the old politics of sectarianism and violence. Meddling by a foreign power in such an opaque manner is unacceptable. Iraq must have a chance to form a stable and effective government to serve its people and enjoy good relations with its neighbors -- without foreign interference.
We strive for an Iraq with strong and transparent democratic institutions; a nation that will be a haven of secularism and opportunity for all Iraqis, not just a narrow elite; where law and order triumph against arbitrary power and chaos. I call on all Iraqi party leaders to work together toward this common interest. Voters were clear: They have had enough ethnic and sectarian division, and they want the violence and bloodshed to stop.
Moreover, we hope that the United States and the United Nations will help bring Iraq's political blocs together to achieve a government in the national interest. I sincerely hope that the United States will remain actively engaged in Iraq, to help shield our fragile democracy from foreign interference and forces that wish to undermine democracy.
Washington still has unrivaled leverage in Iraq, as well as a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people whom it freed from tyranny to do all it can to deliver sustainable peace and stability. Vice President Biden recently said that the United States was "going to be able to keep our commitment" to reduce troop levels in Iraq to 50,000 by this summer. While I have long supported the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iraq cannot be allowed to revert to an unstable state of sectarian strife, dominated by regional influences.
Such an outcome would insult the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians whose lives were stolen in terrorist attacks and the thousands of U.S. soldiers who sacrificed their lives; it would also put at risk every U.S. and international policy priority in the region -- the planned troop withdrawals, nuclear containment, a stable energy supply, even the chances of success in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Iraq has an unprecedented opportunity to create a successful and democratic force for moderation in the heart of the Middle East. We must reward the faith of ordinary Iraqis who turned out in droves because they believed that change is brought about by votes, not violence. The seeds of democracy have been planted; they need to be nurtured. Only by working together and with international support can Iraqis lay the foundation for what we all believe should be a stable, prosperous and democratic nation.
The writer is leader of the Iraqiya List, which finished first in votes in Iraq's national elections in March. He served as prime minister from 2004 to 2005.