For Iraqi Democracy, Voting Is The Easy Part

>Iraq's election, held on Sunday, were a significant success for Iraqi democracy. Despite scattered violence, turnout in Iraq's third-ever national election was 62 percent, compared to only 56.8 percent in the 2008 U.S. election. The UN says there was no widespread fraud. Encouragingly, Sunni Arabs made good on their goal to turn out the vote, demonstrating faith and investment in the Iraqi democracy they once boycotted in vast numbers. But, as in any democracy, getting elected poses an entirely different set of challenges from actual governing. The one is reliant on the other and a feedback loop of failure threatens any democratic government. A failure to govern undermines popular faith in the political system, which makes governance even harder, in turn further eroding the government's popularity and legitimacy. This disintegration is especially possible in Iraq.

As a parliamentary system, Iraq's government requires significant political cooperation to function. Representatives from the multiple-party system must form a majority coalition to appoint a Prime Minister and move forward with the country's business. Given that Iraq's parties reflect ethnic and religious divisions that extend for centuries, forming a coalition requires overcoming some of the Middle East's most entrenched antagonisms. This is rife with all sorts of pitfalls. If, for example, Shia and Kurd parties come together, this risks alienating Sunni Arabs. Iraq's political culture is rife with paranoia and conspiracy theories, so even a legitimate political outcome could be seen as something far more pernicious. It's not difficult to foresee some Iraqis turning away from the democratic experiment in favor of the sectarian militias that tore apart the country in 2006. After all, politically excluded ethnic minorities throughout history have faced a choice between, as Malcolm X put it, "the ballot or the bullet."

Following the decline of violence in 2007, Iraqis came together in an unprecedented and forward-looking willingness to cooperate. But now that the political parties and ethnic populations have tasted power, the allure of self-interested power-seeking risks outshining the need for selfless compromise. Iraq's primary goal after the elections of 2005 was to restore order and peace, a mission that any Iraqi can get behind. But as the country stabilizes, the various factions have more specific, and sometimes conflicting, goals. How to count the population of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, is just one example of a political issue threatening to splinter coalitions. Sunni Arabs are extremely suspicious of Iran's influence in Shia political parties. That suspicion could turn to accusations of illegitimacy in what is likely to be a Shia-dominated government. As American political observers can tell you, even the wildest accusations can prove surprisingly resilient and problematic. Even within the factions, divisions are beginning to show. Among Shia, the violence of the past few years has left lasting resentments. The Kurds, once balanced between two parties, have splintered into three over accusation of corruption.

In the coming months, the newly elected Iraqi parliament will engage in huddled negotiations over determining the contours of the Iraqi government. Cooperation, as any observer of the U.S. Senate can tell you, is crucial to democratic governance, and a break-down can bring everything to a dead halt. For an Iraq desperately in need of strong leadership in enduring security crises, negotiating a looming Iranian neighbor, and distributing oil wealth, success will require much more than high voter turnout.