There was a tone of triumph after Iraq’s elections. Western diplomats crowed that the polls were as democratic as any in the Arab world, ever. An American military commander told me he even yelled “attaboy!” to the Iraqi troops who kept the country relatively secure as people cast their ballots on March 7.
World leaders paid tribute to Iraqis who had committed to democracy. Even as a post-election vortex swirled and bombings filled a political vacuum, people stressed that the elections had been an achievement. As one British politician put it, Iraq was on its way to becoming a “beacon of democracy” for the Middle East; the withdrawal of American troops, which depended on successful elections, is now set to begin at the end of August.
But this election was held up with the scaffolding of an American-led international presence, which bullied and wheedled a recalcitrant Iraq into holding a poll. Although the voting had a veneer of credibility, it was not exactly a model of democratic process, and without help, it would not have happened. For there to be any crowing, the diplomats would have to be able to look to the next parliamentary elections, to the Iraq of 2015, and say with some certainty that they would be as democratic as those held in March.
The chances of that are slim. Without American support, the Iraqi government as it now exists would struggle to hold an election. The March poll happened only after telephone calls from Washington to Kurdish leaders to persuade them to stop stalling electoral legislation. All political parties — except the Sadrists — came to the United States embassy for lessons in how Iraq’s convoluted election system worked. While US soldiers were not directly responsible for security in the cities, their training is still the backbone of the Iraqi security forces.
There is also little commitment to democracy among Iraq’s leaders. Politicians showed a strong tendency toward tactics that were more than dirty politics, from the exploitation of rules to disqualify candidates for links to the regime of former President Saddam Hussein, to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s threatening to invoke his powers as commander-in-chief in calling fraud on the results, in which his rival Ayad Allawi won a plurality of the parliament seats. Security may have held during the elections, but in the aftermath, coordinated bombings — which killed dozens — have sharply increased in frequency, as have assassinations, largely of Sunni leaders.
Allawi, who campaigned on a platform of secularism and was supported by most of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, claimed 91 parliamentary seats out of 345, two more than Maliki’s State of Law party. But he will probably be sidelined; a grand Shiite coalition is being formed, whose power will likely leave Allawi’s voters feeling disillusioned with democracy, deepening sectarian rifts.
The electoral framework is also shaky, symptomatic of a country where institution building has taken second place. Laws have been contested throughout the electoral process and the judiciary, which rules on legal disputes, is corrupt, as is the government — the fourth most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. Also, ordinary Iraqis continue to live without reliable electricity or clean water. Basic infrastructure, let alone the regeneration of the roads, schools and banks that the country needs, is still lacking. The recent revelation of secret prisons for Sunni Arabs shows that brutal human rights abuses are still prevalent, and it seems likely they are used for political ends.
Even with its current international presence, Iraq can only manage what John McCain called a “messy, but effective” democracy. As the country’s security forces grow in strength, it is unlikely to return to the sectarian bloodbath seen from 2005 to the end of 2007. But as oil revenues begin to pour into the country, the money will reinforce a government that tends toward autocracy, corruption and disinterest in the principles of democracy and human rights.
The US, the UN and the international community should spend less time trying to convince the world that democracy has landed in Iraq, and more time working on building law, the parliament and infrastructure, so the country does not backslide as they leave.
Perhaps then, Iraqis, who have suffered so much, might get something close to the country they deserve.
ALICE FORDHAM is a Baghdad correspondent for The Times of London