Iraq's journey from democratic dream to sectarian headcount

25 February 2010

An ancient divide is becoming the dominant factor in Iraq’s new politics. Voting is no answer

Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government with the exception of all the others that have been tried.

It was a resonant assault on the critics of representative government that struck a chord in the 20th century when the Western concept of political progress was principally challenged by authoritarian states.

But the times we live in are dominated by another spectre. It is not the oppressive power of government but its opposite: the disintegration of the state, the collapse of order and the rise of the sectarian and ethnic divisions at a national and regional level.

As has been the case throughout history, the Middle East leads the rest in defining the future. In 2003, US President Bush completed the work his father began 12 years earlier by deposing then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The justification that he represented a threat to the US and the region quickly looked unsound. It was quickly replaced by the assertion that the war was about bringing democracy to Iraq and the region.

For its advocates, democracy is more than an absolute value. It entails specific practices: frequent voting by everyone about practically everything. In Western eyes, elections are indisputably a good thing. Whether they might not be for Iraq was never seriously considered.

Free election

Iraq’s 2005 parliamentary poll, the first genuinely free election since Britain created the country in 1921, was hailed in Washington as redemption for its Iraq adventure and the start of a bright new future for the Middle East. It sounded like wishful thinking even then. Today, it looks like willful deception.

Almost 19 million Iraqis, including about 1.5 million who live outside the country, are eligible to vote on 7 March in the first parliamentary elections since 2003 that Iraqis themselves will run. This should be a golden moment for them all, but it is turning into a brass one. Many Iraqi Sunni Muslims are unhappy that hundreds of candidates deemed to be former senior figures in the Baath Party or Baath sympathisers have been banned from standing.

Even less surprising are US claims that Tehran is meddling in the poll by providing support for pro-Iran Shiite parties. This is, of course, a definitive expression of US double standards. Even more perversely, the US is making the case for the Sunni Muslim minority to reject the election results and, consequently, democracy itself.

History suggests the results could be dire. The year Iraq was confected, the British government defined the border between Northern Ireland and what is now the Irish Republic. The partition was validated by democratic elections north and south of the border. But voting was no more a guarantee of peace and stability then than it is now. Trapped inside an entity they never wanted, Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority felt abandoned and victimised. In 1969, their frustrations exploded into a conflict that continues, in a muted form, to this day.

One of the many paradoxes of the Northern Ireland crisis is that the province is part of a parliamentary democracy, with an independent judiciary and, from 1945, a cradle-to-grave welfare state providing education and healthcare free at the point of use. Yet it has produced in the past 40 years the highest number of legitimately-convicted terrorists as a proportion of the total population than any country on earth. They include Martin McGuinness, who could soon be, in effect, North Ireland’s prime minister.

Communal divisions

Communal divisions have dominated Northern Ireland from the moment universal adult franchise was introduced in 1918. Since then, most voters in what is now Northern Ireland have voted for their sect. Terrible consequences were only averted by exceptional security measures that were regularly illegal and the suspension of democratic practices that were normal in other parts of Britain.

Iraq is now about to have its own Northern Ireland moment. Rather than being an expression of the Iraqi national will, elections next month will probably constitute little more than a sectarian head count. Outside northern Iraq, most Shiites will vote for Shiite parties and most Sunnis will vote for their opponents. Since there are more Shiites than Sunnis in these places, the Shiite parties will win most seats in Iraq’s parliament and form the next government. It’s democracy in action. But it almost certainly won’t work.

But let us be positive. The minority might peacefully assent to the subsidiary role they have been allocated in the new Iraq. The majority might generously secede power to their political foes. But democracy’s logic and track record suggest otherwise. The religious divide buried in Iraqi society that has been brought to the surface since 2003 will probably institutionalise at the level of the state. It will have consequences few can contemplate without a shudder.

Democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself, as the citizens of Iraq intuitively know. And if it fails to deliver peace, it is an exception that should not have been tried in the first place.

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