Iraq still lacks a Functioning Democracy

The March 7 elections that were to herald in Iraq’s new-born democracy instead deepened sectarian divisions and increased political instability. The final results, released March 27, showed former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Sunni-backed secular coalition Iraqiya with 91 seats and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s predominantly Shi’i coalition with 89 seats. Neither bloc won a majority in the 325-seat parliament, but Allawi will have the first chance to put together a ruling coalition.

His job won’t be easy. Al-Maliki immediately demanded a hand recount of the votes, even though international observers claimed the election was fair. Another complication Allawi faces is that the coalition with the third largest number of votes, the Iraqi National Alliance, is dominated by hard-line Shi’i led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi controls the unelected Accountability and Justice Commission, which before the election barred more than 500 Sunni candidates from running, announced it would disqualify six of the winning candidates, which means Allawi’s party would lose at least two seats. As the two leading parties compete for dominance, the Shi’i alliance may hold the balance of power, leaving a country that was intended to be a free-market democracy friendly to Israel, instead an ally of Iran.

Even after a government is formed there is no guarantee it will function effectively. “I’ve still seen no evidence that any [Iraqi] government can govern,” said Joost Hilberman of the International Crisis Group. Emad Gad, of the Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, was even more pessimistic. “Free elections are the last step in a democracy,” he said. “Before that you have to have a democratic society that accepts the values of democracy. In Iraq we see religious conflicts, sectarian conflicts. These are elections without democratic values.”

Questions that parliament left unanswered before the election are yet to be resolved. The status of Kirkuk must still be decided, with Kurds demanding that the city and its surroundings be part of an autonomous Kurdistan, and Iraqi Arab residents strenuously objecting. As oil companies line up for contracts, legislators have yet to agree on how to share oil revenues among the country’s regional and ethnic groups. The Iraqis also lack a system of monitoring the oil companies, a situation that Hiltermann believes is a recipe for massive corruption. The Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which is certain to have chief responsibility for restoring the oil sector, overcharged the Pentagon by $200 million.

Unless these and other problems are solved, and vital services restored to the Iraqi people, the elections will have been no more than a face-saving exercise for former Bush administration officials who claimed the U.S. invasion and ousting of Saddam Hussain would turn Iraq into a free-market democracy and an example to other Arab nations. If this is democracy, many Iraqis may be wishing they could go back to the days of dictatorship–”when they at least had clean water and electricity.