Iraq’s democratic discontent

Several weeks ago, as I sat in the opulent meeting room of the Iraqi Governing Council, an aide to one of the council members pulled me aside to discuss the country’s political travails. The aide, a young woman about 28 years old, was ecstatic about the work she was doing, and firmly believed that the country had been presented with a unique opportunity. But, in a moment of realism, she also offered a major admission. "Democracy," she admitted, "won’t work in this country." It was an unlikely admission from within the system meant to be breeding a democratic Iraq. But ultimately the aide had underscored the cynicism pervading much of the reconstruction process as democracy itself seems further out of reach. Nine months since the regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed, neither the Governing Council nor any other institution has risen from the ashes to support a full-fledged democracy.

Until such institutions take shape and develop legitimacy, democracy itself will remain a concept more than a goal. With security still in disarray, stability still far from established and with politics still centered on sectarian and religious differences, democracy may end up a tool for more extreme elements on the ground. So far, it is Islamists and the nation’s clerics who have risen to the occasion and proven their ability to organize the masses–for rallies now, but ostensibly for elections later. Tribal leaders, too, have begun to show off their political clout. But many in the havoc of post-war Iraq are secular, liberal and moderate voices that have simply been incapable of organizing as a force. Until a wide expanse of democratic powers arises, the prospects for a true democracy on the level of a European or even Latin American nation remain distant glimmers.

The bulwark of democracy began with the US-appointed Governing Council, which was a precursor to an interim government, a constitution, and eventually, elections. But over just three months, allegations of corruption, interest peddling and general inefficiency highlighted the council’s inability to build the infrastructure and legitimacy needed in a government. The council was so inefficient that a report by the constitutional steering committee advising on the formation of a constitutional convention–the most critical next step–was virtually ignored. Then in a sudden about-face, the Bush administration in November opted to hand over sovereignty to an interim government with an interim senate even before the drafting of a constitution.

Meanwhile, the coalition, with the help of contractors like RTI, has worked to breed grassroots democracy and civil society through Iraq’s local town councils. So far most have been handpicked by the coalition, with pseudo-elections held for posts like mayor and governor. Yet even as the councils have worked to represent their local constituencies, they have been given little authority, limited budgets, but seemingly complete responsibility for local issues. These seeds of democracy are almost always blamed when projects go wrong, yet they have almost no authority to fix problems. Consistently, Iraqis in both northern and southern locales I have visited insist that the local councils are simply breeding grounds for nepotism and corruption.

Ironically, the main stumbling block for Iraq’s major political changes, of course, was the prospect of democratic elections. The constitutional imbroglio centered on whether delegates would be elected or appointed–Shiite forces strongly backed elections while Sunni and Kurdish minorities backed the latter. Now, the controversy over choosing the leadership council is centered on whether the council is elected or handpicked. The US plan calls for representatives to be chosen partly out of the local and regional councils and partly out of the Governing Council itself. Even with the trappings of a pseudo-democracy, none of the figures would in fact be democratically elected.

More ironic is that the main critic of such plans and champion for democratic elections in Iraq isn’t the US, but a Muslim cleric. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme leader for Shiites in Iraq, has insisted repeatedly that any true handover of power, any governing body and any political structure, be democratically elected. Part of that is self-serving, of course–ostensibly with democratic elections the Shiites would achieve a significant majority of seats and therefore ensure their own power. But Sistani has also proven he can speak America’s language and force them to answer his calls. L. Paul Bremer has of late begun to take Sistani more seriously. As a compromise, Sistani has begun encouraging United Nations inclusion to help bring about a more democratic government.

Yet the ultimate irony of Iraq is that democracy is precisely what the nation needs to break the cycle of vengeance and cruelty that has marked its history. Repeatedly, Iraqis say the security risks of elections are the top reason for them not to occur. But the coalition’s successful changeover of the Iraq dinar beginning in mid-October has proven it can deftly manage such critical tasks when they are well-planned.

The trouble with democracy isn’t necessarily security, but that it could lead to a government tyrannized by the majority. Only by building civil society can a truly representative democracy take hold. The future of democracy in the region, in fact, is riding on the results.