In a petition to the Iraqi electoral commission, an array of Sunni and Kurdish political parties and individuals on November 26 called for a six-month delay in Iraq's national elections for two reasons: "To address the current security situation and to complete the necessary administrative, technical, and systematic arrangements."
The interim Iraqi government, with American support, quickly rejected this appeal and a spokesman for the Shiites insisted that the planned date of January 30, 2005, is "non-negotiable." But there are good reasons to postpone the vote until Iraq is truly ready for it, even if that is months or years away.
While President Bush's repeated call for a "free and democratic Iraq" is noble and correct, fixing Iraq's political system cannot be finished two months from now. Security, as the petitioners indicate, is one main reason. The logic of democratization is another.
Security: The first priority, before elections, is for the central government in Baghdad, on its own and independent of American and other coalition forces, to end the Sunni insurrection in Iraq and control the whole country. From this point of view, the American government made a good appointment in Prime Minister Allawi. From the time he took office in late June 2004, he has consistently shown what the Washington Post calls a "single-minded focus on issues of security."
Polling results find that Mr. Allawi's single-mindedness matches the mood of the Iraqi public. A June survey by Oxford Research International, for example, found that while Iraqis seek democracy in the long term (meaning in about five years), in the short term, they "want a strong man to sort out security, take control of the country, and keep the nation together." The poll has two important implications: Legitimacy derives primarily from control of Iraq and the body politic realistically understands that democracy will emerge only with time and by replacing a receding autocracy.
Unfortunately, this legitimacy is diminished by the coalition forces who carry the brunt of the fighting in Fallujah and elsewhere, sparing the Iraqi authorities from having to repress the mostly Sunni insurgency. What has become, in effect, a war between the American government and the Sunnis of Iraq has spawned an unhealthy situation. As Charles Krauthammer points out, Americans "must make it clear that we will be there to support that new government. But we also have to make it clear that we are not there to lead the fight indefinitely. It is their civil war."
The central government is far from achieving control over all of Iraq and doing so could take several years. Baghdad needs to focus on this existential problem, rather than worry too soon about the complex political issues facing a nascent democratic government of Iraq. Stability now, say I, and democracy later.
Democratization: Voting does not start the democratization process but culminates and ends it. Before Iraqis can benefit from meaningful elections, they need to leave behind the bad habits of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule and replace them with the benign ways of civil society. There are many steps ahead, such as creating voluntary institutions (political parties, lobby groups, etc.), entrenching the rule of law, establishing freedom of speech, protecting minority rights, securing property rights, and developing the notion of a loyal opposition. Elections can evolve with these good habits. Voting should start at the municipal level and gradually move up to the national level. Also, they should begin with legislatures and move to the executive branch.
These processes will take time, for it is no simple matter to bring Iraq's fractious population together or to throw off the totalitarian habits of past decades. The experience of countries such as Mexico, South Africa, Russia, China, and South Korea, shows that the road from tyranny to democracy is a long, bumpy one. This difficult undertaking cannot be rushed, much less carried out by foreigners. Iraqis alone can make these advances and they will do so with their own currency through a painful process of trial and error. Americans need to learn patience. This was the advice, in fact, that, days after September 11, the University of Chicago's Jean Bethke Elshtain gave to Mr. Bush, asking him "to teach patience to an impatient people." In Iraq, American impatience could have mortal consequences.