Seven new ideas for a democratic Iraq.

The best new ideas for rebuilding a nation.
April 25 2003 10:47 AM

Democracy—Faster, Better, Smarter

The seven best new ideas for introducing representative government to Iraq.

Small steps toward democracy
Small steps toward democracy

These days, democracy seems to be a booby prize. In his new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria argues that the recent proliferation of democracy has been a distinctly mixed blessing. Democracy has unleashed ethnic and religious hatreds that had been suppressed, as new elections have vaulted to power radical Islamist leaders and genocidal nationalists. Popularly chosen presidents have used democratic elections to justify suppressing courts, legislatures, and other independent sources of government power. Russia, for example, has traded a Communist dictatorship for a democratic one. Zakaria argues that democracy does not supply or even defend most of what we prize in our own government: the rule of law, individual rights, the protection of property, and basic fairness.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

So, the challenge facing the United States is not merely how to introduce "democracy" to Iraq—democracy, after all, is as easy as holding an election—but how to bring about a liberal, constitutional democracy—a popular government that also protects the rule of law and basic rights. It's a noble ambition and a preposterously difficult one: If there is anything that democracy experts agree on, it's that you can't easily manufacture the conditions for liberal democracy. No quick fix replaces the hard work of building trust in laws, establishing checks and balances, encouraging civil debate, and so on. Recent attempts to impose democracy in countries such as Cambodia, Bosnia, and Angola have failed dismally.

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Still, the experimentation in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and Africa has produced a bunch of new ideas about how to build a genuine democracy faster and smarter. These ideas are not exactly futuristic—there are no radical technologies for perfecting democracy (e-mail can't exactly replace the rule of law)—but it's only been in the past decade that nation-builders have come to realize exactly how important they are. Here are seven of the best lessons for Iraq:

1. Delay it. The United States is raring to hold elections, declare democracy, and split. All recent experience suggests this is a terrible idea. In Cambodia and Bosnia, for example, the peacekeepers—eager to leave—staged fast votes. The result: The most nationalist, ruthless, and extreme candidates were elected.

Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that rushing elections reinforces the divisions that already exist in a society. As a nation rapidly "decompresses," tribal and religious loyalties fill the vacuum. Citizens attach themselves to what's familiar—often the most belligerent separatists. If elections were held today in Iraq, radical Shiite clerics and Kurdish separatists would be elected. A month later, Iraq would be half Islamic theocracy allied with Iran, half Kurdish state at war with Turkey, and all misery. (New ideas for minimizing this ethnic and religious conflict will be the subject of a later piece.)

Carothers and others insist that a fledgling democracy should delay elections until new associations—business ties, social and professional networks, new political parties not based on tribal or religious affliation—have time to develop and compete with identity politics. A people trained for silence and obedience needs time to figure out how to participate and dissent.

Delaying national elections also allows Iraq to take baby steps. Daniel Serwer, director of the Balkans Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says that Kosovo's democracy has functioned better than Bosnia's in part because Kosovo held municipal elections first, allowing political parties to get practice and giving voters the chance to learn politics locally. Local elections can diminish the influence of ethnic and religious parties since hometown politics tend to be about bread and roads, not ideology.

2. Establish rule of law and an independent judiciary before elections. There's a tendency in democracy-building to mistake elections for a stable democratic government. Every state requires order first. (Later in the series, we'll discuss the best new ideas for securing that order.) People can't participate in government if they don't feel safe.

The judiciary—which guarantees that order—must precede the elected government. Many recent new democracies—notably Russia—have floundered because their elected officials and business elites went unchecked. In Russia, the failure to enforce the rule of law allowed a few people to loot state assets and set up as barons. The absence of a powerful court system enabled Presidents Yeltsin and Putin to demolish all rival sources of power and make themselves democratic tyrants.

3. "Horizontal accountability." A corollary to the rule of law. In a totalitarian state like Saddam's Iraq, no independent power source was permitted. There was one supreme, unchallengeable authority. Liberal democracy requires independent sources of power to ensure that voted-in leaders don't use the excuse of elections to revoke rights and crush rivals. Scholars call this diffusion of power "horizontal accountability." It's essentially what Americans know as "checks and balances."

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