Why elections won't bring democracy to Iraq.

Military analysis.
Dec. 15 2005 5:28 PM

Elections Aren't Enough

Seeing Iraqis vote is wonderful, but you can't rush democracy.

Whichever way today's Iraqi elections go, the very fact of their existence is irresistibly inspiring. Watching these long-oppressed people exercising their franchise as citizens, hearing them express their hopes for a better, freer life—who could fail to be moved or to wish them well?

Yet as we await the results (a process that could take weeks, followed by the months it will likely take to form a government), it's an apt time to step back and consider the broader prospects for Iraqi democracy. Unfortunately, they don't look so good.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A new book, Electing To Fight, by two political scientists—Edward Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania and Jack Snyder of Columbia—reinforces this pessimism. The book argues that, while mature democracies do tend to be more peaceful and almost never go to war with one another, emerging democracies tend to be more violent and aggressive than any other type of regime—and are more likely to erupt in civil war or revert to autocratic rule.

Exceptions, of course, abound: several of the post-Soviet nations of Central and Eastern Europe, some thriving new democracies in Central America. But, working from an exhaustive historical database, Mansfield and Snyder outline the conditions for a successful democratization, among them: a literate populace; a fairly prosperous and diverse economy; and a set of democratic institutions, not least a state apparatus capable of mediating and administering disputes among competing social and political groups.

Apply the list to Iraq. In the winter 2005/06 issue of the National Interest (due out next week), Mansfield and Snyder do just that, and the results come up all zeros. Present-day Iraq, they write, exhibits "all the risk factors": an inflammatory mass media, scant rule of law, corrupt bureaucracies, low income and literacy, an economy based almost entirely on oil, and an exceedingly weak administrative state.

Successful democratization, they write (in both the book and the article), depends not just on some critical mass of conditions but also on the sequence in which these conditions develop. When popular elections occur before democratic institutions take hold, they find, the chances of an enduring democracy are especially dim. "Out-of-sequence, incomplete democratizations," they write in the journal piece, "often create an enduring template for illiberal, populist politics." This is especially true in countries sharply divided along ethnic or religious lines. In such countries, elections have been "an ethnic census, not a deliberation about public issues." They create a politics that hardens these divisions. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, for political actors to forge new ties across those divides; the necessary institutions (trade unions, secular parties, or other interest groups) either don't exist or lack sufficient power.

That pretty well sums up Iraqi politics. What we saw today was not simply Iraqis going to vote for a new parliament. We saw Shiites going to vote for Shiite supremacy, if not an outright Islamic state. We saw Sunni Arabs going to vote for some restoration of Sunni power. We saw Kurds going to vote for the enhancement of Kurdish autonomy.

It might be tempting to reconcile these goals simply by splitting the country into three regions, with each faction controlling its own space. But there are two problems. First, the three regions aren't ethnically "pure"; several major cities, notably Baghdad and Kirkuk, are multiethnic; acts of "ethnic cleansing" are everyday occurrences. Second, a central dispute between the Shiites and Sunnis concerns precisely whether power should be concentrated in the regions or in the central government. In other words, on both counts, formalizing the divide could set off enormous waves of violence.

So, is Iraq doomed? Do today's elections, in the final analysis, mean nothing? No. Lessons of history, however firmly grounded, aren't quite iron laws of physics. Still, the hurdles are extremely daunting.

Some electoral outcomes, if they occurred, might offer a glimmer of hope for a peaceful, democratic Iraq. One would be a large number of votes for the Iraqi National List, former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party of secular Shiites. First, secularism generally is good for democracy, in that it doesn't conflate political power with God's will. Second, in Iraq specifically, Shiite-Sunni cooperation is more likely if the powers aren't obsessed with questions of which brand of Islam is authentic and which is fraudulent. In last January's election, Allawi's party got only 14 percent of the votes—which may not be enough to exert a moderating influence on the religious Shiites of the United Iraqi Alliance. But if no party—Shiite, Sunni, or Kurdish—can form a majority (another outcome to hope for), the secularists might have influence as some coalition's kingmaker. (Then again, maybe not: The Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has warned that it would fight to keep Allawi, an ex-Baathist, from coming to power.)

It would also be good to see a very high turnout among Sunnis. The vast majority of Sunnis didn't vote in last January's election, either by choice or out of fear that insurgents would kill them on their way to the polls. This time, the insurgents dropped their intimidation; the nationalists among them realized that the boycott was a colossal strategic error. A strong showing would have two effects: It would more clearly differentiate the homegrown Sunnis from the foreign terrorists; it would signal that they want to join the political system and would thus put great pressure on the Shiites to make key concessions (for instance, revising the constitution to allow the Sunnis more decision-making power and a greater share of the oil wealth).

Still, the election is at best the beginning—not the settlement—of Iraqi politics. When the new government takes office, all the "risk factors" that Mansfield and Snyder describe will come into play explicitly; they will define political disputes, and it will take great skill and determination for Iraqi's political leaders to fashion compromises.

Beyond Iraq, Mansfield and Snyder's analysis raises profound doubts—as if enough hadn't already been kicked up—over President George W. Bush's declared policy of spreading democracy across the Middle East. The premise of this idea, laid out in Bush's second inaugural address, comes down to this: Democracies are peaceful; thus, turning hostile regimes into democratic states serves not just our moral ideals but our national-security interests.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice elaborated the point in an op-ed piece for the Dec. 11 Washington Post. "The fundamental character of regimes matters more today than the international distribution of power," she wrote. This, she added, is why America's new statecraft centers on the promotion of democracy everywhere. "Democracy is the only guarantee of lasting peace and security between states because it is the only guarantee of freedom and growth within states."

She might be right about democracy and peace, but if Mansfield and Snyder are right, the equation doesn't always apply to democratization. If "the fundamental character of regimes" really does mean more than the balance of power (a doubtful point, but let's stipulate it for now), then she should be very watchful about the character of democratizing regimes as well. Booting out a dictator and holding an election do not a democracy make. Mansfield and Snyder's lesson is that, depending on the character of the regime and the society that it reflects, democratic elections without democratic institutions might worsen the prospects for real democracy—and, if Rice's equations are valid, they won't do much for American security, either.