IRAQ -- A WATERSHED ELECTION
By Dr. Michael Rubin
The Iraqi parliament's decision did not wipe out Sunni candidates. Even the majority Shia lists are multi-sectarian. Iraqis say the controversy is really about rule-of-law and sovereignty issues. Across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum — and even in senior Iraqi military circles — Iraqis consider it likely that there will be a Baathist coup attempt following U.S. withdrawal, even if they disagree about its chances of success. Indeed, it is no coincidence the current Iraqi Defense Minister is among those banned by parliament.
The U.S. White House in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Iraq should be cautious about interfering in Iraqi judicial matters. From an Iraqi perspective, their law is seldom as arbitrary as U.S. Embassy whims or U.S. CENTCOM experiments. The Iraqi system now works. Already, several dozen disqualified candidates have won reinstatement through appeal. An overly active U.S. White House will fuel Iraqi distrust, which is already high because of the perception that the current administration is hostile toward Arab democracy. In offices and classrooms around the holy city of Najaf, the Shia religious leadership castigated U.S. military efforts — singling out Generals Petraeus and Odierno by name — to force reconciliation with recalcitrant Baath Party members. "The Awakening [Council] model cannot apply to the Baath," the son of one Grand Ayatollah said. "If they do not accept democracy, how can they govern it?"
Indeed, it is ironic that so many observers are bashing Iraqi democracy ahead of elections that can, more than any previous polling, cement Iraq's democracy. In 2005, Iraqi leaders sought to dominate society. Shia and Kurdish leaders used militias to impose through force of arms what they could not achieve at the ballot box. Public reaction against their abuse of power, however, overshadowed the shortterm dividends these political movements sought. In municipal elections last January and July, voters punished the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, both of which used militias to facilitate corruption and intimidate constituents.
This trend toward greater accountability will continue, as the Iraqi parliament has reversed the system of closed lists and party slates imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the United Nations. Previously, party leaders rather than constituents determined a politician's success. In the new system, all candidates must appear on ballots and Iraqis can vote for individuals, regardless of where they fall on the slate. No longer can party leaders fill lists with family members and corrupt functionaries and suffer no electoral consequences. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a reputation for honesty, the public will purge many of his subordinates who do not. One senior Dawa Party member predicted that only 50 percent of incumbents will remain in office. Kurdish leader Masud Barzani's decision to visit Washington last week also stemmed from the realization that, given the public animus toward his party's corruption and his functionaries' abuse of power, the number of seats he controls (and, by extension, his leverage) will decline after the elections.
Municipal elections provide a window into Iraqis' new realism. Governors took office only after negotiating power-sharing agreements. Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi, who governs in coalition with the ISCI, said his rivals realize that the electorate will punish both parties if they do not cooperate and deliver. Compare this with the Arab political norm: While one-party states and dictators dominate most countries, Iraqi politicians debate campaign strategies and candidate match-ups to maximize seats ahead of coalition negotiations. Indeed, Iraq is now one of only two Middle Eastern countries where ordinary people cannot easily predict their next leader. (The other is Israel.) Even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a U.S. favorite, may find himself forced into retirement after March. "If Talabani can't even manage his own political party," one Shia leader remarked, referring to the collapse of Talabani's political support among Kurds, "why does he deserve to lead Iraq?"
Still, Iraqis are wary and need international support. Confidence in the Independent High Election Commission is low after a bribery scandal in last Summer's Kurdish elections. Politicians worry that opponents polling poorly in specific districts might deliberately spoil ballot boxes to sway results in hotly contested races. Lack of international preparation to support electoral transparency has increased fears of a repeat of last August's botched Afghanistan election. Any election-day chaos might hamper U.S. withdrawal plans.
Alternatively, successful elections will allow Iraq to turn a corner. Saddam will have been gone a decade when the new parliament's term ends. As University of Baghdad students point out, Iraqis entering the University will have been eight years old when Saddam fell. Just as new generations in Eastern Europe finally put the past behind them, so too can young Iraqis. How sad, then, that, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks of the "three Ds — diplomacy, development, and defense" — that define Obama's foreign-policy philosophy, democracy is not among them.
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
American Foreign Policy -- The Middle East
American Foreign Policy -- Constitutional Democracy:
U.S. Promotion of Constitutional Democracy in Foreign Countries
Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University, 1999) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Senior 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. Dr. Rubin recently returned from a trip through Iraq outside of U.S. military and security control.
The foregoing article by Dr. Michael Rubin was originally published in National Review Online, February 1, 2010, 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/2582/iraq- watershed-election)
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