Purple fingers alone don’t point to democracy
By David Bender On March 7th, Iraq will hold its second parliamentary election and the world will again see pictures of Iraqis’ purple fingers. But these images of democratic participation may obscure more than they reveal: Iraq’s democracy is in trouble. Currently, only 28 of more than 500 banned opposition candidates will be permitted to ...
By David Bender
By David Bender
On March 7th, Iraq will hold its second parliamentary election and the world will again see pictures of Iraqis’ purple fingers. But these images of democratic participation may obscure more than they reveal: Iraq’s democracy is in trouble. Currently, only 28 of more than 500 banned opposition candidates will be permitted to run in the election. Through clever political and judicial manipulation, the opposition has been eliminated before election day and left with no clear constitutional or legal recourse.
Since January, an aggressive campaign to ban more than 500 largely Sunni and secular Shia candidates — mostly from Iyad Allawi’s largely Sunni and secular Shia Iraqiyya Alliance for alleged Baathist links — has started to undermine the weak democratic process that was beginning to take shape in 2009. The Iraqiyya Alliance presented a non-sectarian alternative to the increasingly unpopular Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki; and as a pro-US, secular nationalist, Allawi is a nightmare for pro-Iran factions in Iraq. With Maliki’s support, the Justice and Accountability Council (JAC), which is charged with de-Baathification and is run by two notoriously pro-Iran figures, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al Lami, ordered electoral bans against many Iraqiyya candidates linking them to Baathism.
Given the atrocities perpetrated by the Baath party in Iraq, it is understandable that many Iraqis — especially the Shia and Kurds — support the ban against candidates with alleged Baathist links or sympathies. In reality, however, the bans were never about any genuine fear of a Baathist resurgence. The JAC could have banned any of these candidates at any time in the last two years, but it waited until two months before the election, just as Iraqiyya appeared to be gaining electoral momentum. It’s essentially a case of Maliki and the Shia parties — along with some subdued Kurdish support — coming together to remove a mutual rival.
The Obama administration, concerned by the increasingly anti-democratic actions of the Iraqi government and the growing prospect of a Sunni boycott, sent Vice President Joe Biden to Baghdad at the end of January. He pressed the Iraqi government to allow the banned candidates to run in the election and then be investigated for Baathist sympathies after the election. Soon after, on Feb. 3, an Iraqi appeals court issued an order that essentially adopted the Biden plan and it appeared, for a moment, that the elections would go ahead with full voter participation. But Maliki reacted furiously, calling the ruling "illegal and unconstitutional," and assembled a group of four of the most powerful figures in the country to overturn it: himself, President Jalal Talabani, Speaker of the Parliament Ayad al Samarrai, and Head of the Higher Judicial Council Midhat al Mahmud. The group pushed the supposedly independent judiciary to rule that the bans would stand.
It’s too early to say that Iraq’s experiment with multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian democracy is doomed. Ultimately, the country’s political stability will depend on post-election dynamics, including the government’s new formation, rather than on vote tallies alone. But the government’s unapologetic manipulation of the system to suppress Sunni participation bodes poorly for the country’s democratic prospects and Sunni participation in the political process.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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