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February 05, 2008

The Next Powder Keg: Iraqi Provincial Elections
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

We’ve had some interesting exchanges lately between Shadi, Pat, Michael and Matt Yglesias on elections and on this day of all days I wanted to throw another important element into the elections mix.

I think the U.S. is in danger of making another in a long series of catastrophic mistakes in Iraq, and it’s because it’s decided to emphasize elections as a conflict resolution mechanism.  This is something that the United States does far too often in its attempt to solve all of the world’s problems by spreading democracy.

Right now, we are sitting on a combustible set of cease fires in Iraq that are more likely than not to unravel.  The “Awakening Strategy” of aligning with various Sunni tribes and former insurgent groups against Al Qaeda in Iraq has temporarily tamped down the violence.  But it has left in its wake a set of independent well organized and well funded militias.  These groups are not integrated into Iraq’s political institutions in any meaningful way and most continue to view the Shi’a national government as the enemy.

The new conventional wisdom inside American military and diplomatic circles is that sustainable stability can only be achieved by bringing these groups into the political process through provincial elections.  President Bush and Secretary Rice have both made holding provincial elections a central political benchmark in Iraq’s road to reconciliation.  Ambassador Crocker just last month told reporters,

Whether you're looking at the south, and unresolved issues and tensions as to who will wield how much power, or places like Anbar, where the tribes having not participated in the previous elections find themselves in a position of some prominence yet without representation in established political structures . . . it's probably going to be fairly important to have elections within the coming year as a means of regulating this competition,

This makes some sense.  Most Sunnis boycotted the 2005 local elections and the groups that now wield the most power in these territories were too busy fighting an insurgency in 2005 to actually take the time to vote.  No political system can function properly if it is not reflective of the military realities on the ground. 

Unfortunately rather than act as the natural next step on the way towards stability in Iraq, provincial elections at this time are much more likely to simply be the next major spark that plunges parts of Iraq back into full scale chaos.  Elections are the exact opposite of conflict resolution.  They are, by their very nature, an intense struggle for power.  When they occur in stable liberal democracies they lead to increased tensions and partisanship (Just ask Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain or Mitt Romney).  But these tensions are resolved peacefully through liberal institutions that guarantee a certain (Though not always perfect) level of fairness.  However, when elections take place in unstable societies that don’t have strong institutions, they can often lead to chaos, especially if there is no confidence in the results (See Kenya or potentially Pakistan in two weeks). 

Given these tendencies it’s not hard to imagine that provincial elections in Iraq would likely have horrific and unintended consequences.  First, there are some practical questions about how one would manage an election.  Two million people have fled Iraq and another two million are internally displaced.  Given this mass migration, it’s hard to conceive of how Iraq would develop coherent voter rolls.

But even taking this consideration aside, provincial elections are still likely to lead to chaos.  In the Sunni parts of the country an internal power struggle is already under way.  Members of the Anbar Salvation Council (ASC) are being targeted for assassination by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is still a major force.  Meanwhile, there are increasing tensions between the rising Awakening movements and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls most of the local provincial councils in the Sunni areas and represents the Sunnis in the national government.  Add to that mix brewing tensions between the “Concerned Local Citizens (CLC)” groups, which are former members of the insurgency and the ASC that consist of the local tribes.  These two groups are usually thought to be one and the same, but they are different and in actuality the leadership of the CLCs is frustrated with the ASC, which they feel has taken much of the credit for their hard work against AQI. 

Adding an all out competition for power, in the form of elections, to this combustible mix is likely to act as an accelerant.  Rather then a clear winner, the elections would likely be marred by vote rigging and violence.  The losers would be unlikely to accept the outcome and would resort to violence to hold on to their position.  What is needed here is a conflict resolution process that actually brings the various sides together to negotiate an agreement on how they will share power. 

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What is needed here is a conflict resolution process that actually brings the various sides together to negotiate an agreement on how they will share power.

Is the hope for such a process really any more realistic than hopes for a solution through elections? You can't have productive power-sharing negotiations among all of the important parties until all of those parties have reached the point where they are reconciled to sharing power rather than winning power. I don't think they are there yet - not even close.

My feeling about this is that the people who need to negotiate an agreement are Iraq's neighbors, and that stability is going to come from the outside in. Until the players in Iraq have a clear understanding of what their boundaries are, and what kinds of support they can and cannot expect from their neighbors, they will continue to hope, and scheme, and plot to achieve maximalist outcomes. The region needs a united front, and needs to paint a clear picture for the Iraqis of what an acceptable outcome in Iraq looks like. And the US has to get out of the way.

The surest way to win power is to kill one's competitors. Unless one is able to complete this job, one is very likely to end up worse than one started, but this is easier to see after the fact than before.

For some time now Iraqi factions have been restrained in their actions toward one another by the knowledge that an attempt on any of their parts to win power in the most direct way was likely to win them the attention of the American military. As well, at least one important faction -- Sadr's -- has evidently seen a risk that active hostilities could put it in the position of supplying cannon fodder for a proxy war between the Americans and the Iranians. So far, so good; elections may inspire some ill will but they won't change the power relationships.

The problem is that they also can't do what the Americans want them to do, which is to ameliorate the conflicts within Iraq by giving Iraqis a direct voice in their government. This is because the essence of the conflict is the Shiite factions' deep-seated sense of grievance against the Sunni Arabs, and the Sunni Arabs resolute refusal to respond to or even acknowledge it. Had this issue been front and center among Iraqis in 2003, or perhaps as late as 2004, it might be possible now to think of elections as a means of moving forward. But just as it would not have been useful to hold elections in Eastern Europe without discussing Communism or in South Africa without acknowledging apartheid, elections in Iraq that are not preceeded by recognition by all factions of why reconciliation is necessary in the first place are likely to confirm the intransigence of Iraqi factions by allowing them to claim a popular mandate in the respective provinces they dominate.

It is, of course, possible that such popular mandates could give capable, far-sighted factional leaders the legitimacy they would need to negotiate power-sharing agreements later. This is probably what the Americans are hoping for. Nothing I have heard or read suggests this is a hope well-founded as far as any of the Iraqi Arab political factions are concerned.

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