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An Iraqi woman walks past election posters containing the portrait of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Baghdad, earlier this week. The posters read, ''United Iraqi Alliance elections equal security and stability.''
An Iraqi woman walks past election posters containing the portrait of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Baghdad, earlier this week. The posters read, ''United Iraqi Alliance elections equal security and stability.'' (AP Photo / Hadi Mizban)

The day after

Even if Iraq's elections are carried off with some modicum of success on Jan. 30, the real question is what happens after the votes are counted.

AS IRAQ'S ELECTION DAY approaches, President Bush and some commentators have spoken as though the mere march of the calendar toward Jan. 30 is in itself a sign of progress toward democracy. ''I suspect if you were asking me questions 18 months ago and I said there's going to be elections in Iraq,'' Bush told the White House press corps on Jan. 7, ''you would've had trouble containing yourself from laughing out loud at the president. But here we are at this moment, and it's exciting times for the Iraqi people.''

Despite a sharp debate in recent weeks over whether to delay the balloting to allow for improved security and to bring more Sunni Arabs into the process, the administration has stuck firmly to the timeline for the vote. Under the current plan, in two weeks Iraqis will elect a 275-member transitional National Assembly -- empowered to make laws, choose a prime minister and president, and write the nation's new constitution -- along with 18 provincial assemblies and a 105-member Kurdistan National Assembly in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north.

But what then? Most public discussion has focused on the vote itself. Democracy, however, does not consist simply of voting. If the elections proceed on Jan. 30, and a reasonable degree of order is maintained, there remains the question of what happens on Jan. 31, when the work of governing really begins.

When asked whether the elections can bring a semblance of stability and democracy to the country, Iraq experts and democracy scholars here in the United States tend to fall along a continuum of pessimism. Some, like Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, see the elections as currently planned as ''one of many not very good choices.'' Juan R.I. Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan, puts it more bluntly: ''It looks like these elections are going to be a disaster.''

Elections have on occasion been held in unstable countries (Afghanistan being a notable recent example), but as James Dobbins, formerly the US special envoy for Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan, points out, ''I don't think that we've ever tried to run an election in such an insecure environment.'' Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the use of elections as a pacification mechanism is highly unusual. ''Usually elections come after the conflict as the final ribbon on the peace deal.''

Nevertheless, asked what a successful outcome might look like, several of the experts were willing to sketch out scenarios in which the elections could, to some degree, work. If, through a combination of luck and inspired politicking, the fledgling Iraqi government finds a way to reach out to those who are effectively disenfranchised by the election process or distance itself, at least symbolically, from the US, Iraq might still avoid the grim scenario of ethnic warfare and chaos that even the most optimistic observers acknowledge is an all too realistic possibility.

. . .

As many have noted, the transitional National Assembly will not, in all likelihood, accurately represent the political will or the ethnic make-up of the Iraqi electorate. In these elections, turnout will be an especially important indicator. Experts note that without scientific polling, it's impossible to know just how many Iraqis plan to vote. Carothers suggests that anything above 60 percent -- approximately the turnout for the 2004 US presidential election -- would be a sign of substantial Iraqi faith in the electoral process. (By comparison, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of registered voters turned out for the Afghan presidential election on Oct. 9.)

Yet the geographical distribution of the vote matters more than the raw numbers. Rather than have members of the National Assembly elected from each province, the election will treat the entire country as one electoral district, awarding seats to parties, or coalitions of parties, on a proportional basis. While this avoided the time-consuming and contentious process of drawing electoral district boundaries -- which, it was argued, would have made voting by Jan. 30 impossible -- it also ensures that any area with low turnout stands to be underrepresented. The parties popular in the predominantly Sunni Arab provinces, where the insurgency is centered, are therefore likely to do poorly. The formerly dominant Sunni Arab minority, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of Iraq's population (the Shia make up over 60 percent and the Kurds approximately 20 percent), may very well find themselves with only a handful of seats.

Noah Feldman, a professor at New York University Law School who advised on the drafting of the interim Iraqi constitution and has argued forcefully for the potential of Islamic democracy, says that expectations for a truly representative result should be lowered in light of current conditions. There's a chance, he argues, that in addition to low Sunni participation, we might also see ''further weird anomalies based on turnout.''

For example, while Shiites, at the urging of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are expected to vote in large numbers, ''you might still have lower than expected turnout in Shia areas because of insecurity.'' That would favor voters in the largely peaceful Kurdish north -- where turnout for the Kurdish Assembly elections has traditionally been around 90 percent -- and delegitimize the Assembly in the eyes of the Shia. It would also embolden the Kurds who, with the most powerful militias in the country and barely concealed separatist ambitions, might push for de facto independence, flirting with civil war while angering neighboring Turkey and Iran, countries with their own restive Kurdish minorities.

Nevertheless, says Larry Diamond, a democratic development specialist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, the election will almost certainly be ''a thumping victory'' for the United Iraqi Alliance, the Sistani-endorsed coalition of mostly Shia parties. Yet a Shia-dominated government will need to gain the trust of the Sunnis, and perhaps even the Kurds, if it is to maintain stability.

To do that, Diamond continues, Sistani's coalition will need to hold a national roundtable meeting, ''where all the groups will get together and work out some sort of power-sharing deal.'' Carothers suggests that such a deal include ''offering some substantial positions in the government to important members of the Sunni parties.''

Feldman, for his part, proposes a more structural solution: ''They could create an upper house of parliament, like the US Senate, with guaranteed representation of all provinces.'' Diamond's own idea is to ''amend the provisional constitution so that provinces that are underrepresented or not represented will still have a presence on the committee set up to draft the [permanent] constitution.''

A more balanced government might even win over the allegiance of some Sunnis who would otherwise side with the insurgents. ''If you don't have some small number of Sunnis in the government,'' Dobbins argues, ''the battle between the government and the insurgents starts to break down into a straightforward ethnic war. But if Sunnis seem to be represented in the government in a significant way then that complicates things, and neighboring Sunni countries might be less likely to support the insurgents.''

. . .

But even a government with perfect ethnic balance will still be vulnerable to the perception that it is captive to the interests of the occupying Americans. To remedy this, some experts predict, the Iraqi government may seek a symbolic break with the United States.

''We'll see a pronounced distancing of the new government from the US, perhaps a timetable demanded for US withdrawal,'' says Cole. Diamond agrees, and even argues that the United States should already have offered its own schedule for a withdrawal. ''I've been arguing for months that we should do something like this because I think it would help to dampen fears that the US intends to basically occupy Iraq indefinitely.''

Such distancing from the United States, Feldman says, could be used as a bargaining chip with the insurgents. ''The government can say, ‘If you put down your arms, we will kick out the Americans. If you do not we will crush you in a way that will make the Americans look like wimps.''' Feldman hastens to add that he's not at all sure an Iraqi government could make good on either promise. ''But the point is they can offer both a much more accommodationist and a much harsher line than we have,'' he says.

But according to Peter W. Galbraith, who served as US ambassador to Croatia in the years after the Bosnian War and then as a high official in the UN's transitional administration in East Timor, the only way forward is for the new Iraqi government to relinquish its newfound power rather than flex it. Galbraith, who supported the Iraq invasion on humanitarian grounds, sees the entire idea of a centralized Iraqi government as misguided and the elections as irreparably flawed. Ultimate sovereignty, as he sees it, should reside separately with the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds in a loose tripartite confederation.

For Galbraith, the situation calls to mind Yugoslavia after the Cold War. One reason it fell apart, he says, ''is that Milosevic basically refused to accommodate the desires for greater autonomy on the part of the Slovenes and the Croats.'' Similarly, he argues, the Bush administration ''has been proceeding on the assumption of a single Iraq, rather than acknowledging the reality of a country with three groups, with very different agendas, and first trying to broker a deal among the groups'' before trying to have an election.

Under those circumstances, Galbraith argues, you could have ''at least a partial transition to democracy.'' Instead, the current plan promises only a ''bad news/bad news story.''

''The bad news is that the elections will be engulfed in violence in a significant part of the country and so they'll fail,'' says Galbraith. ''The other bad news is that they will succeed and lead to the break-up of the country.''

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. 

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