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