Building Democracy in Iraq

We have been discussing the census, electoral rules, and the nature of democracy in South and East Asian countries trying to draw lessons from events that happened between fifty and a hundred and fifty years ago.

It was therefore eerie to read a virtual replay that took place in Iraq only a few years back. We truly ignore history at our own peril.

The account is from the 2006 book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone), an account of the American occupation of Iraq and the attempts to reconstruct the country. Here we shall reproduce just the bare essence that indicates the overlap with our earlier posts. Readers interested in the details should be able to obtain the book fairly easily.

From April 2003 to June 2004, Iraq was governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration, headed by Paul Bremer. Amongst the objectives of the CPA was to hold elections in Iraq and transform it into a democracy.

The first step was to select a Governing Council of Iraqis that would prepare the rules for the general elections to follow. Here is how Chandrasekaran describes what followed:

Their lack of experience led to a fundamental miscalculation. They tried to right Saddam’s wrongs by engaging in social engineering, favoring the once-oppressed Shiites and Kurds at the expense of the once-ruling Sunnis…. The result was a Governing Council that had strict quotas: thirteen Shiite Arabs, five Sunni Arabs, five Sunni Kurds, One Christian, and one Turkmen. To some Iraqis, who placed national identity over religious or ethnic affiliation… the Americans changed all that. They made a point of categorizing people as Sunni or Shiite or Kurd.

Chandrasekaran records the misgivings of one American adviser in Iraq who believed that ‘forming a democracy was easy, but forming a liberal, moderate democracy wasn’t’.

He believed that the CPA had committed a catastrophic error by establishing a quota for Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds on the Governing Council. [He] believed that Iraqis hadn’t focused on ethnic and religious divisions before the war, and that it was the CPA’s quota system that had encouraged them to identify themselves by race or sect.

Bremer’s approach magnified rather than muted the very divisions that so many Iraqis rejected… The best Iraqis knew that they could not form one country, one democratic country, unless they were somehow able to get these categories behind them and look for leaders who, one way or another, would transcend these divisions. The best Iraqis… knew this. We didn’t.

We now move on to a discussion of electoral rules. ‘On June 1 [2004], United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced the names of the members of the interim government that would assume power on June 30, when Bremer was scheduled to leave and the CPA [along with the Governing Council] was to be dissolved’.

The interim government… would remain in power for seven months, until January 2005, when elections would be held for a national assembly…. The biggest impediment to holding elections was the lack of an up-to-date census…. Without a census, there was no accurate way of knowing how many people lived in each province and, as a consequence, how to apportion seats in the assembly.

The United Nations team determined that there was no reasonable way to conduct a nationwide census before January 2005, the date by which the interim constitution required the first election to be held. The UN team, which put the goal of holding a perfect election over everything else, told the CPA that the only way to meet the deadline was to consider the entire country as a single electoral district. All Iraqis, no matter where they lived, would get to choose from the same list of candidates. The candidates could choose to run on their own, or they could band together with other members of their party and run as a slate. The number of votes a party received would determine how many members of its slate got seats in the assembly.

It was technically sound, if convoluted, but it had major flaws. The system, which required candidates to campaign nationwide, gave large parties a clear advantage over individuals and smaller parties. It would mean that the two dominant Kurdish parties and the two largest Shiite parties… would likely win a clear majority of seats, marginalizing moderates and secularists…. 

The single district wasn’t the only option on the table… a national database used to dole out monthly food rations could be used to provide a reasonably accurate estimate of how many people lived in each province….

Chandrasekaran quotes a senior CPA staffer:

There were plenty of us who said that a single-district election would be a disaster and that you could have a proportional representation system with the ration [database]… But Bremer and his keepers at the White House didn’t care. The type of election was a secondary issue to them. What mattered more than anything else was holding it on time. It was style over substance. On June 15, Bremer signed CPA Order 96. It stated that Iraq ‘will be a single electoral constituency’.

Chandrasekaran records the outcome:

Millions of Iraqis had headed to the polls in January 2005 for the country’s first democratic elections in decades…. All told, Sunni Arabs, who comprised about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, wound up with fewer that 8 percent of the seats in the legislature. Bremer’s single-district electoral law had shut the Sunnis out of the new government, depriving the Americans, and the Iraqis, of a valuable opportunity to win over Sunnis and weaken the insurgency.

All the key ministries were claimed by the Kurds and the Shiites, whose militiamen swept up legions of young Sunni men… with the acquiescence of the new government…. A civil war had begun.

Eerie, isn’t it?

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