Opinion | The underappreciated success of Iraqi democracy – The Washington Post
Just weeks after the tragic fall of Afghanistan, something important has happened in the other country in which the United States conducted a great nation-building experiment over the past two decades: Iraq held elections, which were mostly free and fair. Assuming this process leads to the formation of a new government, it will be the sixth peaceful transfer of power since 2004. Although turnout was at a record low, this election marks real progress. A senior Iraqi official described it to me as “a political earthquake.”
Eighteen years after the United States’ invasion, which ushered in an era of chaos, civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, Iraq’s democratic system has endured. Elections have become routine. Political parties compete and horse-trade. There is even a degree of pluralistic media and an increasingly assertive judiciary (not quite free and independent by Western standards, but one that is showing some progress). The independent electoral commission, for example, which is composed of judges, has been remarkably impartial and effective.
The senior Iraqi official described the results as a political earthquake because he characterized them as “a defeat for militias and a victory for the Iraqi state.” After Iraq’s army melted away in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion, political power brokers and parties created their own armed militias. Over time, the Shiite militias grew in strength — especially when they were called upon to fight the Islamic State — and became a kind of parallel state of their own. Many had close ties to Iran. But in this election, by one count, parties with militias went from 45 seats to fewer than 20.
The second, seismic aspect of the election has been the rise of Sunni participation. Sunnis, a minority group in Iraq, have been the most disaffected group within the political system. They have tended to be cynical about voting, and they remain disgruntled; in the past, they have on occasion fueled insurgencies against the state. But this time, they voted, managing to concentrate their votes in a few parties. Al-Monitor estimates that if a few of these leaders can band together, a unified Sunni bloc would have 50 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament, which would give it greater political power than it has had since 2003.
The big winner of the elections is Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American radical cleric, whose militia battled U.S. troops in the past. Now, however, Sadr has transformed himself into a political player who works within the Iraqi system. His rise to power could now force him to disband some of his militias and support the state more strongly.
There are signs he will do just that. Interestingly, Sadr succeeded in this election through old-fashioned grass-roots organizing and a smart communications strategy. His party used new election laws effectively and created an app that told its supporters where and when to vote, thus efficiently distributing votes to gain maximum representation. Sadr has come a long way from his days as a violent revolutionary and is gradually assuming a role as a canny party boss.
The third takeaway from the election is that, despite Iranian religious, political and military influence in Iraq, pro-Iranian parties did not fare well. The senior Iraqi official said, “Whatever else one might say about Moqtada al-Sadr, he is clearly an Iraqi nationalist who does not like any foreign interference — from any side — in the country.”
I asked the official what explains Iraq’s relative success (and he is the first to acknowledge it is a relative and tentative success). He pointed to two large factors: First, after the fiasco of the United States’ early policies in Iraq, strenuous efforts were made to incorporate all groups into the political system. “One of the unheralded successes of the surge, led by that great odd couple, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, was to bring many of the Sunni militias back into the fold,” he said. That political outreach was in marked contrast to policy in Afghanistan, which from the start ruled out any Taliban participation in the political system.
The second, the Iraqi official said, was the battle against the Islamic State. “That struggle really brought the country together,” he said. “Iraq has always had a sense of being a nation and a polity, but this deepened that identity, and when we prevailed gave us all pride in that achievement.”
The senior official cautions that Iraq’s democracy remains fragile. Corruption is undermining the legitimacy of the state and political system. For now, he said, the urgent challenge is that “the losers in this election have to accept their loss and not resort to violence or extraconstitutional means.” Yet he sees encouraging signs: “We Iraqis have learned that we have no alternative but to handle our differences through politics, to trust in elections, and above all to compromise, compromise, compromise.”
The losers should accept their loss and all parties must compromise. Who could have imagined a decade ago that Iraqi politics might provide some useful lessons for U.S. democracy?
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