Elections are the basic pillar on which the principle of government by consent stands — the atom of democracy and the most direct mechanism through which the governed interact with the governing. However, they are not a golden bullet to be shot at lingering ghosts of past injustices and conflicts. If undertaken haphazardly and in unfavorable conditions they can do more harm than good.
As such a central institution of modern government, it is not surprising that many of the most important stories of the past year featured the drama of the ballot prominently. The Madrid bombing in March was likely the second most consequential terror attack ever, not only because of the scale of the destruction, but also because it altered the result of the Spanish election. In the Ukraine, a fraudulent election became the rallying point for a nascent popular uprising that eventually swept into power, not on the strength of violent passion but with the legitimacy of a popular mandate. And of course, our own election, which gave a polarizing president legitimacy and gave notice to the rest of the world that America likes its politicians resolved (stubborn) and direct (abrasive).
While each of these dramas were consequential, the Palestinian and Iraqi elections of 2005 may well prove to be even more significant, especially if George Bush’s inaugural vision for the “greatest achievements in the history of freedom” is to turn into something greater than rhetorical grandstanding. These two elections are being presented by some as probable turning points for a historically tumultuous region where chaos and violence have spiked in the past few years.
The idea is appealing. Maybe Israel will embrace the newly elected Palestinian leader and reopen negotiations, which maybe (just maybe) would provide a prelude to solving one of the world’s most intractable problems. And maybe an Iraqi election would precipitate the formation of a legitimate government that could pacify the population, allowing the U.S. to exit with pride intact and mission accomplished. (Forgetting of course that the original mission was to disarm Iraq of weapons, not to arm it with the tools of modern statecraft.) Americans in Iraq and Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank are the two most potent symbols jihadists use to recruit younger generations. If elections can extricate these two flashpoints, then all of the world is better for it.
However, whereas it appears that elections in the Palestinian territories will preface renewed peace negotiations, in Iraq there is the scary possibility — even likelihood — that the elections will be deleterious to any chance to create a unified state.
The most essential prerequisite for a fair election is security. Palestinians enjoyed this in their election, Iraqis — especially in certain areas — will not. The other criteria for a successful election — secret ballot, no systematic political intimidation and an unadulterated ballot count — were, according to and likely because of international monitors, met in the Palestinian territories, and will likely be met in Iraq.
But there is no overstating the importance of security. The effect of the chaos in Iraq’ s Sunni triangle is that most of its residents feel essentially disenfranchised. Barring a last-minute miracle, the majority of Sunnis living in this battered region will stay home on Election Day and protest its credibility thereafter. With sectarian tension already near a boiling point a dispute over the legitimacy of the government along ethnic lines could plunge the country into civil war, maybe anarchy.
Why are some Iraqis bent on preventing a legitimate election? Mainly because they are afraid they are going to be on the wrong side of a dramatic power redistribution. Sunnis under Saddam controlled the government despite making up only 20 percent of the population. Now, a popular election will almost certainly relegate them to minority status.
As any American Democrat can tell you, minority status in government is no fun, but not even Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is suggesting we do away with democratic elections. Fine, you say, but Democrats, politically bereft as they are, are still no extremists. But in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas — an extremist group by all calculations — not only refrained from disrupting Palestinian elections, but even voiced its support for the newly elected government.
So it seems that an inclination toward extremism is not the reason why elections are secure in some places but not in others. The real reason has to do with a society’s sense of communal interest. Hamas wants what is best for Palestinians and Democrats want what is best for Americans. But there are many Iraqis (many more than just bitter and foreign terrorists) who identify with their tribe and their ethnicity well before any sense of “Iraqiness.” Iraq was formed not as a way for a society to join together to better their lives but as a compromise between two colonial powers carving up an unknown region. National identity isn’t created by brash, indifferent dueling empires, but Iraq was, and until such a national identity seeps into the consciousness of most Iraqis, elections will be futile.
A foreign-run election in an attempt to correct conflict and injustice fomented by foreigners of the past: No golden bullet indeed.
Benjamin Gruenbaum is a senior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. War on Error appears alternate Mondays.
Archived article by Benjamin Gruenbaum