In a recent national poll of U.S. adults, 56 percent of respondents doubted that the upcoming elections in Iraq will produce a stable government that can rule effectively. This skepticism is warranted. Regardless of what happens next week, Americans should not expect that conditions will dramatically improve for the U.S. troops tasked with trying to bring peace and stability to the country.
While Iraq may acquire the trappings of democracy with its first nationwide elections in decades, the country is far from becoming a liberal democracy—one that protects individual rights from the whims of a potentially hostile majority. This is a crucial distinction. It helps to explain why a number of Iraqis have chosen to boycott the elections, and why a few pre-emptive bitter-enders have attempted to use violence and intimidation to prevent them from even taking place.
Contrast this behavior with our experience in the United States. The past two presidential elections have been among the most closely contested and contentious in our history. Although millions of Americans did not vote for George Bush, not a single person has taken up arms. The mere suggestion sounds absurd, precisely because Americans take it for granted that it is better to live in a society governed by laws than it is to live in no society at all.
Americans further assume that all of the candidates on the ballot have an equal chance at winning. But even this is a stretch. Cynical manipulation by the two major parties ensures that very few congressional races are competitive. And yet we still support the system, despite occasional grumbling.
By contrast, many Iraqis are not convinced that elections are better than chaos. And they think that they can "succeed," if it can be called that, by preventing the elections from taking place. They look upon their current predicament as a zero-sum game, and they fear that victory by one group could mean destruction for their group.
Some have opted for violence. Earlier this month, the head of Iraq's intelligence services estimated that the number of active insurgents in Iraq totaled 40,000 "hard-core fighters," with another 160,000 part-time guerillas and volunteers who provided support to the insurgents. These individuals may not prevent the elections from taking place, but they hope to intimidate a sufficient number of voters so as to undermine the legitimacy of the elected government, and thereby weaken the government.
This move is not completely crazy. Sunni Arabs comprise only about 20 percent of the total population throughout the country. Shia Arabs will win a comfortable majority of the vote and the lion's share of the seats in parliament. The decision by leading Sunni parties to boycott the elections will make the imbalance even more lopsided.
The electoral process, which throws all Iraqi voters into one national pool, has encouraged people to identity themselves according to religious affiliations, perversely dividing the country. Sunni fears that the Shia will use their inevitable majority to persecute their numerically smaller brethren may be overblown, but that's an easy call to make from the United States. Blue Americans living in red congressional districts, and red Americans living in blue districts, do not fear being persecuted or even killed by the victors in the election.
Will the Shia use their political power to institutionalize control of the Iraqi state, by shaping the national constitution to suit their ends? And will they then negotiate with Sunni Arabs from a position of strength? Or will Shia leaders direct, or acquiesce in, violence and retribution against Sunnis, and not just Saddam loyalists, for their complicity in the crimes of the past?
The Sunnis who are boycotting the elections, and those who are providing aid and comfort to a bloody insurgency, believe that they already know the answers. They are not waiting for the votes to be counted on election day. They'll take their chances with chaos.