Does Iraq's Democracy Work Better Than America's?

As America withers over health care, Iraq unifies despite violence


This week in Washington, D.C., the majority party in the world's flagship democracy approved reforms to the nation's crumbling health-care system. Though the details were hotly debated, everyone agreed that the system needed fixing, and the resulting legislation is a labored-over compromise between the two political parties. Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away in Baghdad, Iraq's seven-year-old democracy is struggling to overcome a brutal civil war and centuries of totalitarian rule. Iarq's president and prime minister have alleged fraud in the recent election, demanding a recount despite having no authority to do so, and in the process triggering a constitutional crisis. Once the vote is approved, it could fundamentally shift the delicate balance of power between rival ethnic and religious groups.

The stakes and challenges facing Baghdad are simply immense compared to Washington's. So which of these two capital cities has been beset by demonstrations, accusations of fascism, challenges to the legitimacy of the ruling party, veiled suggestions of violence, and hints of secessionism? You guessed it: Washington. In which city has the nation's minority party pledged to continue obstructing governance? Washington again. In both cases, it is Washington alone. How did Iraq came to outperform America at our own system of government? Why is Iraq succeeding in the face of tremendous challenges while America struggles just because its Congress passed social welfare legislation?

In Iraq, citizens have shown amazing investment in the nascent democracy. Sunni Arabs, for example, participate in a government they have every reason to mistrust. After enduring years of violence at the hands of Shia militias, they watched helplessly in January as Shia rulers banned hundreds of Sunni candidates on suspicious claims of "deBaathification." Yet Sunnis marched dutifully to the polls. Turnout in Sunni provinces was as high as 75 percent, bolstering the democracy's legitimacy and stability. (Ironically, the deBaathification crisis was resolved thanks to Vice President Biden, who traveled to Baghdad to privately and publicly lobby against the ban.)

Iraqis have negotiated many such stumbling blocks. Since the election, both President Chalabi and Prime Minister al-Maliki have insisted on a recount, though observers deny there was fraud. Maliki, tied with a challenger, has hinted that he would not leave office without a recount. In many countries, a political crisis this tense would have already spiraled into disaster. But despite a long tradition of political violence, Iraqis have held strong, waiting patiently for the gears of government to resolve the issue. To be sure, the country could still disintegrate. But it has already resisted many opportunities to do so, and may well emerge from the elections stronger than ever.

Trusting a government ruled by your opponent's party is difficult but essential. Many Iraqis still mourn family members who were literally tortured and killed by followers of opposition parties. The political party that follows Moktada al-Sadr, whose brutal militias ravaged Iraq for years, has won at least 10 percent of parliament. That Sadrists are disregarding violence for democratic governance is impressive. That the rest of Iraq wisely tolerates Sadrists in government is remarkable. Yet, in America, the passage of perfectly legal health-care reform by a democratically elected majority has drawn calls of tyranny and fascism, language freighted with hints at revolution. As an observer of Iraq, I'm thrilled that their democracy has thus far performed so ably. But as an American, I'm disturbed that we can't seem to match them.

Image: Iraqi women rally against the Irqaiya party. Qassem Zein/AFP/Getty.