Last week the UN's advisor on Iraqi matters, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, told a Dutch newspaper that given the present dire security situation in Iraq, elections scheduled for next January were all but impossible. In implying the need for a delay, he went on to observe that "elections are not a magic potion, but part of the political process; it is imperative to prepare for them in a proper way, and for them to take place at the proper time to achieve the desired objectives."
It is difficult to dismiss Ibrahimi's warning, which has now been effectively seconded by Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi. But Ibrahimi missed the point. The real problem with Iraq's elections is less their timing (since the U.S. and the interim Iraqi government are destined to alienate one group or another whatever they decide) than the nature of the electoral system that Iraq was compelled to adopt.
Iraq will vote as a single constituency, with nationwide slates of candidates competing for 275 seats on the basis of proportional representation. An implicit rationale behind the idea (recommended by Carina Perelli, the director of the UN's Electoral Assistance Divisions, and adopted by the former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer) was that given a relatively high turnout by all communities, the ensuing parliament would more or less reflect Iraq's communal and ethnic makeup.
Today, this reasoning has been thrown to the winds by the threat of a Sunni boycott, which may lead to a parliament where Sunnis are under-represented. Given that the new legislature will also be a constituent assembly, the absent Sunnis may have no say in their own political future if elections go ahead as planned, compromising the legitimacy of the new Iraq. That is doubtless one of the anxieties of Ibrahimi, who knows the value of cajoling the region's mostly Sunni Arab leaders.
The Americans and Perelli made a spectacular blunder in backing a single-constituency system. Allow me to refer to another multi-communal (though not multiethnic) Middle Eastern state, Lebanon, to explain just why.
In 1943 Lebanon adopted a "consociational" system, where the religious communities are represented in parliament and in the national bureaucracy according to a ratio not necessarily reflecting their demographic weight. The idea is to give all groups a protected stake in the state. Today, that ratio is 50-50, so that although Christians are a minority, they nevertheless have half the seats in the legislature, and still hold the presidency. Everyone understands that if communal representation in parliament were decided by majority vote, even based on proportional representation, the minorities would consider this the beginning of an irreversible slide, and would probably abandon Lebanon, resort to violence, or both. This is the essence of what is known as the minority syndrome—the belief that any loss of power by one's own group in a multi-communal society will ultimately lead to the eradication of that group.
However, in recent years, Syria's Lebanese allies have periodically warned Christians against going too far in their opposition to Syria by threatening to resort to an election system that would make Lebanon a single constituency. Somewhat similarly to the proposal in Iraq, such a system would mandate the formation of contending national slates of candidates, so that, in fact, the majority Muslim electorate would have a decisive say in choosing all Christian candidates (even though half the seats in parliament would still be reserved for Christians). Precisely for that reason, and fears that it would alienate Christians and other minorities, notably the Druze, the project remains controversial (and as noted above, is mainly resurrected as a means of intimidation).
For similar reasons a single constituency in Iraq is bound to alarm Arab Sunnis there. The Sunnis see nothing but peril in a plan that gives considerable power to the majority Shiites and that, worse, unlike the Lebanese structure, does not set a fixed ratio of Sunni seats in the future parliament. It is too easy to say, as defenders of the idea have, that this is suitable payback for the Sunnis' having dominated Iraq for so long. Democratic elections are not retribution by ballot. Sunnis did dominate Iraq, as the Christians dominated Lebanon before the 1975 civil war; but the solution to the problem, and ultimately perhaps to the Iraqi insurgency, is a system that is inclusive and fair. Many Sunnis, instead, will regard a single-constituency scheme as an effort to "drown" them in a larger mass of hostile forces.
Several proposals are on the table to address what can be done before the January election deadline. The most interesting idea, floated by Robert Malley and Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group in a November 30 New York Times opinion piece, and in a rather different context by Peter Galbraith and Leslie Gelb in a December 3 Los Angeles Times commentary, is that national elections be postponed, but that provincial elections go ahead in Kurdistan and the Shiite south. Malley and Hiltermann go into more detail, saying elections should also be held at the municipal and district levels, but this doesn't really contradict Galbraith and Gelb.
Where the two pairs part ways is in their final objective. For Malley and Hiltermann, provincial and local elections (preceded by a devolution of power to these administrative levels to make participation worthwhile) are needed to avoid a breakup of Iraq. For Galbraith and Gelb, the aim is to turn Iraq into a loose confederation—the only way, they believe, the country can survive. For the former, disseminating power through provincial and local elections would ensure that Iraq stops short of a confederation—or fragmentation; for the latter, such elections would help consolidate the institutions of confederation.
Which of the two views is preferable can be debated endlessly. However, last March Galbraith was patient enough to listen to my warning that too obvious an American effort to break up Iraq might expose the U.S. to charges (whether they are justifiable or not is irrelevant) that it is doing Israel's bidding by seeking to break up the Middle East, and that this would surely provoke outrage and unite most Iraqis against the initiative. As divided as Lebanon was for 15 years, at the war's end about the worse thing that one could say about a political group was that it was "partitionist."
That doesn't alter the fact that the solution in Iraq is indeed a devolution of power and other mechanisms permitting its minorities, particularly Sunnis, to have a say in a state that they will not consider an existential threat. That means the hard conventions of majority rule may have to be reconsidered and replaced with something guaranteeing effective minority representation. The election plan for Iraq fails utterly in this regard, and the insurgency will be fortified as a consequence.