Provincial Voting in Iraq

Initial reports out of Iraq suggest that voting in provincial elections is going well, with a noticeable absence of sectarian violence, intimidation and acts of anti-democratic behavior by the Iraqis. Moreover, the elections are being held with Iraqis themselves largely in control of security surrounding the event. That is, of course, good news (certainly better than if there were major in cidents). But how good is the news?

The answer is that it depends on two things, neither of which is apparent at this juncture. The first is why these elections are proceeding as smoothly as they appear to be, and there are three possible answers. One is that they are, after all, provincial level elections, not elections to determine the national parliament and thus the direction of national policy. The stakes are thus different than they will be for the national elections scheduled for later this year. Just as voting for the Mississippi legislature does not provide a harbinger for the American national elections, the question of carryover is open. Moreover, since most of the provinces have completed the process of ethnic cleansing, theyare being held in by-and-large ethncially pure areas (that is, of course, not entirely true in areas, for instance, around Baghdad).

A second possibility is that the Iraqis are on their best behavior to make an impression on the Americans and the rest of the world. Most Iraqis very much want to see the American occupation end as quickly as possible, and demonstrating that they can carry out these primary manifestations of democratic process offers a demonstration they no longer need us, and success further makes that point for world public opinion, which also wants the Americans to leave. It thus reinforces President Obama’s 16-month timetable and undercuts the foot draggers who say we must stay longer. The third possibility is that democratic process has actually taken hold in the country, a maturation of the influences the United States has sought to inculcate all along.

Which of these is true? Not being there, it is impossible to know, but my guess is that there is some truth and thus contribution of each influence. More localized elections probably are less inflammatory, the Iraqis (and those who support them, notably the Iranians) certainly do not want these elections to serve as an excuse for a prolongation of the occupation, and at least some Iraqis undoubtedly now do “get it” about democracy.

The other, and more critical, question is whether this spirit will carry over into national voting later in the year. Since this has not yet happened and there is inadequate experience on which to gauge, this question cannot be answered, only speculated on. Those who want to leave will make a great deal out of Iraqi progress toward self-government, while skeptics will argue the jury is still out. Since one cannot know what connection there will be, it is almost certainthat these elections will be greeted by a cautious optimism but no important changes until they are reinforced (if they are) by the national elections.

The New York Times articles on the elections (Alisa J. Rubin, “Pointing to a New Era, U.S. Pulls Back as Iraqis Vote,” February 1, 2009, online) adds an interesting about the post-election environment and its relationship to Iraqi oil, a fequent subject in this space.  She says, “The United States exerts more influence here than in any other oil-producing country–and will be intent on continuing to do so. Iraq will be eager to demonstrate its independence….This promises considerable tension as each side redefines the relationship.”

This tension enters a source of ambivalence into the American view of the electoral scene in Iraq. The United States badly wants and needs success in democratization to demonstrate the success of its goals in that country and to provide the conditions for a “peace with honor” accompanying withdrawal. At the same time, the United States equally badly wants enought continuing influence in Iraq to ensure we are not cut off from Iraqi oil, as we were by Saddam Hussein.

Hopefully, a fully democratic Iraq will also be sufficiently pro-American to allow both goals to be realized. Unfortunately, recent history in places like Gaza and Lebanon suggest the possibilities of people voting to create unfriendly democracies (I discuss this at some length in Cases in International Relations, 4th edition, due in bookstores in March 2009). As it wends its way out of Iraq, it may be part of the diplomatic challenge on the Obama administration to try to be sure that the end result of democratization in Iraq is a friednly democracy–one that will allow us to tap into their oil. The provincial electionsare just the first step in that process.

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