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Defining Democracy in Iraq

JURIST Contributing Editor Michael Kelly of Creighton University School of Law says that while democracy in Iraq may look one way in second Iraqi general election on Sunday, it may evolve to look very different when the next election cycle rolls around and the American troops are gone...

American Ambassador Christopher Hill said this coming Sunday's general election in Iraq will "determine the quality of Iraqi democracy." His frank statement in an interview with NPR's Tom Ashbrook begs the question: who exactly determines the quality of Iraqi democracy? Is there a fixed standard? Not to my knowledge. True, the general election in Iraq will seat a new government that is selected by the people at large. In that sense, democracy is achieved. The level of violence that accompanies the process and the degree of public acceptance of the results is probably what Ambassador Hill is referring to — less violence and more acceptance equals higher quality of democracy. So stability seems to be a key benchmark for determining a democracy's maturity. This is only Iraq's second general election. Isn't that a bit unrealistic? The country is still occupied by U.S. forces and remains largely split along sectarian lines (Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs).

Webster's authoritatively defines democracy as "a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." The Oxford English Dictionary offers a more egalitarian version: "Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege."

Those who seek to define "democracy" face the same inherently inescapable dilemma as those who seek to define "terrorism." Experiential and perspective-laden differences yield a general lack of agreement. How, then, can we prescribe democracy as the antidote for what ails all societies? As Iraqis go the polls on Sunday, the casual observer might pause to ponder that question. The U.S. was roundly criticized for attempting to deliver democracy to the Middle East at the end of a rifle barrel — both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The corrupt government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, recently re-elected, but supported by drug money and warlords, is hardly a poster-child for democracy. Yet the impulse to provide for self-determination of peoples, noble as it is, remains strong.

So which version of democracy is right for a complex society like Iraq? They currently use a parliamentary democratic structure within a nominally federal system. Power distribution runs along ethnic/religious lines so that the president, the prime minister and the speaker are never of the same ethnic/religious sector. The current distribution places a Sunni Kurd as president, a Shiite Arab as prime minister, and a Sunni Arab as speaker. The models that states can use for democracy are varied — from presidential to parliamentarian. And they can exist within unitary or federal structures. Indeed, recent history has seen the advent of new descriptors such as "-style" democracies: western-style democracy rests atop a foundation of civil society and the rule of law, Latin-style democracy is more fluid yet subject to sudden economic and military disruptions, African-style democracy is chaotic, tribal, and often relies on local strongmen, and of course Russian or Chinese-style democracy isn't democracy at all.

Western states argue that what's missing from these less stable forms of democracy is the healthy degree of civil society and respect for the rule of law that buttresses Western systems. And they have a point. But those societies place a high priority on such values. Inculcating similar priorities in dissimilar societies is problematic. Without such values, democratic elections can produce non-democratic results (e.g. the national socialists in Germany — 1933, or Hamas in Palestine — 2006, or Russia today) — proving Fareed Zakaria's central point in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad that elections, in and of themselves, do not democracies make.

So is this a reflection of who is ready for democracy and who is not? According to many international law scholars and the human rights community, democracy is a right accorded to everyone on the planet. That's a fine ideal, and one that I certainly sympathize with. People should have the right to self-determine in both the systemic sense and the larger Wilsonian sense. But the real world offers divergent and sometimes discouraging examples. Was the Belgian Congo ready for democracy when King Leopold quit the Dark Continent in 1960? Or India and Pakistan when King George VI withdrew from the British Raj in 1947? No. Massive social cleavages sometimes result and no one can predict when and whether democracy will take root, let alone in what form or for how long. India has since become a model of democratic ideals, Pakistan much less so. Congo remains a disaster.

Moreover, while democracy in Iraq may look one way in this second general election on Sunday, it may evolve to look very different when the next election cycle rolls around and the American troops are gone. Democracy is not static. It is perhaps more situational. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki complained this week about massive amounts of foreign money coming into the campaigns from Iran and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election. Perhaps this same dynamic will play out in the United States in our November 2010 mid-term elections, given the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United freeing up corporate campaign contributions, with Exxon and Microsoft playing the role of the Iranians and Saudis? Ambassador Hill will be watching the Iraqi elections on Sunday to "determine the quality of Iraqi democracy," but many will also likely have to do a bit of navel-gazing here in the U.S. come November.

Michael J. Kelly is Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty Research & International Programs at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He served as Chair of the Association of American Law Schools Section on National Security Law in 2009-2010, and is the author of Ghosts of Halabja: Saddam Hussein & the Kurdish Genocide (2008).

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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