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Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Is Iraq Voting A Cause for Celebration?

Last Thursday, the state of Iraq held a vote for a four-year government to replace the current interim parliament. This interim government was plagued by many problems, the least of which was it took the coalition leaders three months to agree on whom would get which jobs. Pundits and politicians hailed the vote as the beginning of democracy, and, a sign that the insurgency had finally begun to trade political power for violence.

I'm not that optimistic for four reasons.

(1) Our celebration may be some premature; voting is a signal that the Shiite and the Sunni believe that have something to gain from electoral contestation. Electoral contestation, as the Irish Republicans demonstrated many times over, can complement as well as substitute the armed struggle.

(2) There are tactical as well as strategic reasons for voting. The German Wiemar Republic is a good example of "tactical democrats"-- political parties who participate in the parliamentary process long enough to gain legitimacy while undermining the foundations of democratic political rule. It is a positive thing, I think, that the international political climate has valorized voting and representational governments as more legitimate expressions of the political will. However, political leaders who aspire to lead their states are not fools; if voting is in, they are most certainly willing to allow, encourage, and participate in voting to make the Western European and North American intelligentsia happy. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are excellent examples of this.

(3) The parties that America supported received small shares of the vote. The newest parties haven't been, and aren't, terribly supportive of American troops in their country; they call it an "occupation", a term that has regional cache given the Arab-Israeli dispute. Israpundit went so far as to suggest that "Iran won the Iraqi vote."

(4) SecState Rice remarked that the process of national elections was a process in which the governors request the consent of the governed. "Two days from now, the Iraqi people will go to the polls for the third time since January. And they will elect a parliament to govern their nation for the next four years. All across Iraq today, representatives from some 300 political parties are staging rallies, they're holding televised debates, they're hanging campaign posters, and they're taking their case to the Iraqi people. They are asking for the consent of the governed."

Is that true? Can we really say that political parties, particularly in very divided states, seek the consent of the governed? Or would it be more appropriate to suggest that the posturing and the platforms of the parties are designed to suggest that an election victory is a "mandate" for the party's agenda? Israel makes an excellent case in point. When one votes for the Likud, why exactly is one doing that? Or in America, what did it mean to vote for John Kerry in the last election? One might have simply not supported Bush, one might have been in favor of a balanced budget, or one might have agreed with the Democrat 2004 platform.

All of this is simply to say that voting does not uniquely bring the specifics of the general political will into government, but does create a representative indicator of whether the country prefers more "liberal/secular" parties, more "Islamist" parties, etc. It doesn't tell us what the country wants in specific; and that is the largest problem of all.

The insurgency is presumably fighting for something. Voting, without other aspects of democratic life such as the free press, a strong judiciary, a robust economy, an education populace, etc is not particularly helpful toward the goal of divining what it is the insurgency is fighting for. In fact, voting may encourage intransigence on the part of some of the political parties who mistake their "base"/constituency for permanent political support in the post-Hussein posturing.