How Iraq’s Elections Set Back Democracy

By Ayad Allawi, the prime minister of Iraq from 2004 to 2005, who heads the Iraqi National Accord Party (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/11/07):

In the six weeks since Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered their report to Congress on the situation in Iraq, there has been much criticism over the lack of progress made by the Baghdad government toward national reconciliation. Unfortunately, neither Washington nor the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems to understand that reconciliation between Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups will begin only when we change the flawed electoral system that was created after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The paralysis that has afflicted the government in Baghdad, the sectarian disputes across the country and the failure to move toward reconciliation were all predictable outcomes of the senseless rush to hold national elections and put the Constitution in place. At the time, leaders from all major parties produced a memorandum calling for a delay of the elections, which I presented to Ghazi al-Yawer, then the interim president of Iraq.

Yet due largely to political pressure from the international community, the elections went ahead in January 2005, under a misguided “closed party list” system. Rather than choosing a specific candidate, voters across the country chose from among rival lists of candidates backed and organized by political parties. This system was entirely unsuitable given the security situation, the lack of accurate census figures, heavy intimidation from ethnic and religious militias, gross interventions by Iran, dismantled state institutions, and the use of religious symbols by parties to influence voters.

Accordingly, the vast majority of the electorate based their choices on sectarian and ethnic affiliations, not on genuine political platforms. Because many electoral lists weren’t made public until just before the voting, the competing candidates were simply unknown to ordinary Iraqis. This gave rise to our sectarian Parliament, controlled by party leaders rather than by the genuine representatives of the people. They have assembled a government unaccountable and unanswerable to its people.

How to fix this mess and bring Iraqis together as a true nation? We must begin with a fundamental re-examination of the electoral laws and the Constitution. This is not simply my opinion — it is shared by many of my colleagues in the Parliament’s Council of Representatives.

I propose that a new electoral law be devised to move Iraq toward a completely district-based electoral system, like the American Congress, or a “mixed party list” system like that in Germany, in which some representatives are directly elected and other seats are allotted based on the parties’ overall showing. In either case, the candidates must be announced well in advance of the election, and they must be chosen to represent the people in their locality.

Furthermore, a new law should ban the use of religious symbols and rhetoric by candidates and parties — these have no place in democratic elections. In order to prevent interference from militias and to ensure transparency, the United Nations must supervise all these elections district by district. And these reforms should be supplemented by other preconditions of national reconciliation, like general amnesty to all those who have not engaged in terrorism.

The next elections in Iraq are not scheduled to take place until late 2009 (unless the current government is removed by parliamentary means or a new general election is held at the request of a majority of the body). Whatever the fate of the Maliki government, the Council of Representatives must act fast to repeal the regulatory framework of the elections law and propose a new system to the independent electoral commission of Iraq that will ensure all Iraqis are granted an equal voice in their government.

This restructuring of the electoral process will be the beginning of the end of the sectarianism that now dominates Iraqi politics and our dysfunctional government. National reconciliation should be the most significant milestone set by the Bush administration, since this “benchmark” is far more important than the 17 others put forward by Congress this year.

Building democracy in Iraq will be a long-term process, established through the rule of law, a stable security environment, functioning state institutions and an emerging civil society. Success can be achieved if we act soon to bring about the fundamental reforms needed to provide for an Iraqi democracy with a parliament and government that are receptive to people’s needs. Only then can we build a country that will finally allow us to enjoy the freedom so many have paid for with their lives.

The alternative is continuing down the road we are headed, which leads directly to the disintegration of Iraq.