IRAQ: RETURN OF THE PURPLE FINGERS
By J. Scott Carpenter & Michael Rubin
This Spring, officials in Washington and Baghdad celebrated final approval of benchmark legislation governing provincial powers; U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker called its passage March 19, 2008, "a major step forward." No longer would bureaucrats in Baghdad exert arbitrary control over the provinces, assigning budgets and funding projects irrespective of local desires. Sunni leaders would not be able to drain the Shiite-populated marshes without local consent, for example, nor would Shiite militiamen in ministry offices in Baghdad be in a position to carry out vendettas against Sunnis in Anbar province. And, as local faces emerge, accessible and accountable to ordinary Iraqis, cynicism about unresponsive Green Zone politicians should decline.
At least, that's how it could be. Much depends on what election law Iraqis choose.
Before the transfer of sovereignty in 2004, U.S., U.N. and Iraqi officials debated how Iraqis should elect their leaders. Ordinary citizens and many politicians of constitutionalist persuasion sought geographic constituency-based elections: Iraqi politicians would run for defined districts. Every city, town, or group of villages would have its representative in Parliament. But many communities remained scattered after Saddam Hussein's ethnic cleansing campaigns. Given this, as well as for the administrative ease of organizing elections, the officials agreed to adopt a party-slate system.
It was a fateful decision. Rather than vote for individuals, Iraqis voted for political parties, whose leaders compiled lists of candidates. In descending order, one candidate would enter Parliament for every 31,000 votes the party received. Under this system, aspiring politicians owed their future, not to voters, but to the party leaders who compiled the lists. Instead of encouraging Iraqi politicians to debate security, sewage and schooling, the party-slate system encouraged them to engage in the most extreme sectarian or ethno-nationalist rhetoric to prove their mettle to party leaders. Those who preached tolerance or voiced more technocratic concerns found themselves at the bottom of lists. United Iraqi Alliance leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for example, would place politicians who toed a Shiite chauvinist line ahead of, say, moderates who sought national reconciliation. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani tolerated no politician from Kirkuk who prioritized economic development over his hard-line position on autonomy. Demagoguery flourished, and stability faltered.
Reforming Iraq's election system on the national level will be difficult. Every member of parliament is a beneficiary of the system. If the lists are maintained, those whose only qualification is loyalty need never worry about debating the intricacies of infrastructure development with engineers or grass-roots activists. Nor will party leaders drive change. Those who control the lists enjoy their privileged status. They want to be power brokers, not merely representatives.
At the local level, however, there is real opportunity. Before the 2005 elections, one poll showed that only 3 percent of Iraqis viewed political parties favorably. As ordinary people have been victimized by corruption, abuses of power and party militias, Iraqis say the popularity of political parties and party bosses has fallen even further. Many Shiites, for example, say that they will no longer vote for a unified sectarian list. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani recognizes the trend and will probably not demand sectarian solidarity in local elections. In Anbar, local elections enable the Iraqis there to solidify the past year's gains. For the emergent leadership of the Awakening Council, who earned their credentials on the battlefield against al-Qa'ida affiliates, provincial elections mean real representation, whether or not Iraq's Shiite leadership likes it.
Iraqis should have the right to vote for the best individuals to administer governorates and sit on district councils. The country need not abandon parties or proportional representation, but lawmakers could explore an open-list system that would allow citizens to vote for people they know. Even better would be a mixed system, such as the one practiced in Germany, which combines party lists with the ability to elect individuals. Party bosses may resist, but, if Iraq is to achieve stability, it would be better to battle in the political and diplomatic spheres now rather than later on the battlefield, with the bosses and militia enforcers clashing on the streets of Basra, Baghdad, or Kirkuk.
Not all elections are the same. Systems matter. When preparing for elections, the path of least resistance is not always the best choice. Let's not make the same mistake twice.
The Problem of Rogue States:
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National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
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American Foreign Policy -- Constitutional Democracy:
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J. Scott Carpenter, a Master of Science in Economics and European Studies (School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University), is the Keston Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Director of the Institute's Project Fikra, the primary purpose of which is to empower Arab moderates and constitutional democrats in their fight against Islamism, anti-Semitism, chauvinistic and authoritarian political regimes, Pan-Arab Nationalism, and other extremist forces in the Middle East.
From 2004 to 2007, Carpenter served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. In 2006, he was appointed Coordinator for the U.S. State Department's Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiatives. Earlier, Carpenter served in Baghdad as Director of the Governance Group for the Coalition Provisional Authority and as a key advisor to CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer. Prior to Carpenter's service in Iraq, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Before joining the State Department, he worked with the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. and promoting constitutional democratic political development worldwide.
Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Scott Carpenter and Michael Rubin was originally published in the Washington Post, June 9, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1920)
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