Why January 30 Won't Work for Iraq

Postponing Iraq's elections would be bad; holding them would be worse.

By Peter W. Galbraith and Leslie H. Gelb
Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, is a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Los Angeles Times

December 3, 2004

Even though President Bush, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Shiite leaders are insisting on going ahead with the Iraqi national elections on Jan. 30, there are powerful reasons for a delay.

For one thing, most Sunni Arab leaders are telling their followers to boycott, and Sunni insurgents, even after Fallouja, can still mount attacks all across the Sunni Triangle and will disrupt substantially the elections there. For another, although the Kurds in the north are more supportive of U.S. policy, privately they favor deferral. And what's more, because of the way the elections are structured, low voter turnout could undermine the legitimacy and workability of the new Iraqi government.

Conversations in Baghdad and Washington in recent weeks suggest that for all the brave words about going forward, few of those actually responsible for the elections' success — Iraq's top government leaders, military commanders and election officials — actually believe they can be held in just two months. Postponing them would be bad, but holding them would be worse.

The purpose of the elections is to choose a national assembly to write a permanent constitution and establish a government with legitimacy. The U.N.-designed electoral system provides for proportional representation of political parties based on their share of the vote throughout Iraq. This would produce fair results only if the three major groups — Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center and Shiites in the south — voted proportionate to their share of the total population.

But, and here is where disaster lurks, this is virtually certain not to occur. Sunni leaders have told their people not to vote in order to protest the Fallouja offensive, and insurgents will intimidate many others. Sunni Arab turnout, then, might well be as low as a quarter of their total number, compared with likely Kurd and Shiite voters reaching three-quarters of their totals, or more. In 1992, more than 90% of Kurds voted in free elections in the north.

If this were to happen, Sunni Arabs could end up holding only 5% of the assembly seats while constituting 20% of Iraq's population. Shiites could amass 65% of the seats with only 55% of the population, while the Kurds would have 25% of the seats with less than 20% of the population. Thus, Shiites and Kurds would dominate the elected assembly overwhelmingly, while Sunni Arabs effectively would be marginalized.

Such results would not only be unfair, but they could light a stick of ethnic, religious and policy dynamite. With a commanding majority in the assembly, the Shiites would understandably expect to govern Iraq. But the reality is that Sunni Arabs will not accept rule by the very people they bossed and victimized for most of the last century. National elections will make Iraq's Sunni center less governable, not more.

Shiite leaders would want to dictate the terms of Iraq's constitution. In fact, they opposed a provision in the country's interim constitution that would have given the two smaller groups a veto over the final document. This puts the Shiites on a collision course not only with Sunnis, but also with Iraq's powerful Kurdish minority. The Shiite parties are religious; the Kurdish parties are secular and nationalist. The Kurds, who have been de facto independent from Baghdad since 1991, look to the West for their political model; the Shiites are influenced by Iran. So, if Allawi and Bush go forward with nationwide elections in January, here's what they can expect: The Shiites will have the full legal authority derived from free and democratic elections, but not the power to enforce it outside their own region. Sunni Arabs will be further marginalized, and more will join the insurgents. Ethnic and religious conflict could explode.

It has already begun in Mosul, where Sunni Arab insurgents have targeted the city's Kurdish minority, leading the Kurds to deploy their military — flying the Kurdish flag, not the Iraqi flag — to the city. Tensions are also rising between Sunni and Shiite Arabs. South of Baghdad, a Shiite commando unit attacked and burned a Sunni Arab village near Latifiya thought to harbor insurgents who murdered Shiite pilgrims en route to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

The underlying problem is that Iraq's new electoral system suffers from the same conceptual flaw that has characterized U.S. policy since Saddam Hussein's fall — an incorrect assumption that Iraq's three main communities share a common sense of being a nation. In fact, all three think primarily in terms of their own ethnic or confessional community. These differences cannot be reconciled in a national vote based on a pretense that there is a unitary state.

If Iraq is to survive as a state, it can do so only as a loose confederation of at least three self-governing entities, with multiethnic Baghdad as a special capital district. To get there, Iraq's three main communities need to bargain as equals. The Kurds already have their regional government. Iraq's three Shiite southern governorates have recently proposed forming a single region and are seeking the same powers Kurdistan has, including ownership of the oil beneath their land.

The best solution at the moment is for Iraq's national elections to be postponed, but for previously scheduled voting to go ahead for the Kurdistan National Assembly and the governorate councils in the Shiite south. This still would leave Sunni Arabs in central Iraq out in the cold, but at least it would not disenfranchise them within their own central part of Iraq or in a future national assembly.

Postponing elections will be a terrible jolt to Iraq's long-suffering Shiites, who have seen democracy as providing them the fruits of their numerical majority. But regional elections will give the Shiites the self-government they desire without the burden of taking on an invigorated Sunni insurgency and a recalcitrant, but powerful, Kurdistan. To see what is possible in their own region, the Shiites need only look north to an increasingly prosperous Kurdistan that is today the only safe part of Iraq.

For Bush, postponing national elections would be a setback; he has leaned heavily on the upcoming vote to justify his Iraq policy. But as Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said this week, the date should not be sacrosanct. Sham elections, held too soon, would only intensify Sunni Arab resistance and possibly tear the country apart.