Me, myself and Iraq

When individual-based democracy doesn

A principal prop of liberal Western capitalist culture is individualism. The grand transformation of the European order came when people hitherto perceived mainly as components of larger social structures (often under the ultimate authority of a king endorsed by the Divine) slowly established secular systems where individuals played the defining role. The individual could now shape his own life narrative much as he pleased, agreed a contract with society to avoid mutual harm, but otherwise acted as an autonomous unit whose individuality was best embodied in the institution of democratic elections – “one man, one vote.”

So obvious were the merits of this scheme that it was with growing consternation that the United States struggled with it as the scheduled date for Iraqi parliamentary elections approached at the end of last month. The reason was that under the system chosen to govern the elections, individuals in Iraq might, in theory, have gained, but relations between the country’s religious communities, which are far more important in shaping social behavior, lost. Why is that? Because the electoral system chosen by the UN, and approved by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, virtually ensured that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs would boycott the process, fearing it would grant too much power to the Shiite community. The election law made the country a single constituency, with nationwide (and closed) slates of candidates competing for seats on the basis of proportional representation. The idea was that given a relatively high turnout by all communities, the ensuing parliament would essentially reflect Iraq’s communal and ethnic makeup. This rationale broke down, however, when Sunni Arabs said “no thank you.” For weeks politicians and analysts thought of ways to bring Sunni Arabs back into the fold to ensure the legitimacy of the new Iraqi order. Then one word began increasingly appearing in the media: “Lebanon.” For example, writing in the DAILY STAR, even someone as sympathetic to Arab nationalism as British journalist Patrick Seale could not help but observe: “The answer [in Iraq] might be to devise a system in which posts and power in a new Iraq are shared equitably between the communities, on the model of the National Pact that Lebanon adopted in 1943 to satisfy the aspirations of Muslims and Christians.”

Indeed, as the American concept of democracy–with its focus on the individual as a benchmark – faltered, consideration of more relevant regional alternatives became unavoidable. The Lebanese “consociational” system (based on a power-sharing agreement between the country’s varied communities) suddenly seemed to offer a possible way out of the Iraqi morass. Not surprisingly, at the end of December US officials began floating the idea of reserving parliamentary seats for Sunni Arabs, to ensure a balance in the legislature that will also be writing a constitution. Just as predictably, however, none of these officials wanted to go on the record with the proposal, and very soon it was Iraq’s election board that shot the idea down, with little public reaction from Washington. This was revealing, since in the American interpretation of individual-based democracy, communal set-asides are, simply, an aberration. The highest embodiment of individual rights is not, or should not be, the traditional religious, sectarian or tribal community, but the state and its representative institutions. But for a moment, the Americans did blink.

As well they should have, since Lebanon, for all its problems, has shown that a Middle Eastern country relying on a consociational system can also be relatively liberal, open, and devoted to the free market (even if the country daily witnesses appalling abuse of the notion, though almost never the free market’s being called into question). However, Lebanon’s civil war clouds the picture. For most outsiders, the consociational system led to the conflict of 1975-1990; but what they cannot understand is that the system also allowed Lebanon to survive as a single multi-communal society despite 15 years of carnage.

It would surely be too simple to transpose the Lebanese system to Iraq. However, as the US and a post-election Iraqi authority contemplate what types of political mechanisms might best apply to Iraq in the future, a first step is necessary: to reconsider the admirable, but also in the Iraqi case probably inapplicable, individual-based notion of majority democracy, and look at alternatives – most notably introduction of a consociational system that can better play off Iraq’s more traditional social structures. This effort would, at the least, enrich a global debate on democracy that far too often hits a brick wall when considering societies where sub-state groups are potentially more powerful than the state. Modern democracy is often too wedded to the idea of classical Western statehood for its proponents to readily consider that when a state is weak, the room for liberty might actually expand. Yes, a consociational system might make the Iraqi state less powerful, but it might also bring it much closer to liberal capitalist culture than any other.