Hamoudi on early elections in Iraq

Aug. 27, 2010, 10:20 a.m.

Haider Ala Hamoudi, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has published an article in the Harvard International Law Journal, discussing the decision to hold early elections in Iraq.  The optimal time to hold elections after a conflict is widely believed to be one of the most crucial decisions for both managing conflict and building democratic institutions.   On one hand,  it is important for a government to have legitimacy, and therefore early elections would seem the best strategy.  A counter to this would be that rushing a flawed electoral process could lead to an even more illegitimate government.   The successful conduct of an election requires creating large voter registries, drawing district boundaries (if necessary) and informing voters about how the system works.  It should also be considered that running an election under a legal framework that was not agreed upon by all major parties can lead to disfranchisement, not to mention entrenching a flawed electoral system. Hamoudi argues, however, that the debate over whether it was wise to hold early elections in Iraq misses  the point.  He believes that once the Shi'a had realized their potential benefits from a democratic Iraq, their calls for early elections made the polls all but inevitable.  He notes in particular that the failure of the Coalition to find weapons of mass destruction forced an immediate re-branding of the war as a democracy promotion endeavor.  Once this happened, it was impossible for the U.S. government to delay Iraqi calls for early polls.

The dangers of precipitous elections were well known to the U.S. at the time, and the principal U.S. figures of the Iraqi occupation would have been keenly aware of both legal and policy-oriented scholarship on the topic. Yet despite American misgivings, and the collective wisdom about problems inherent in advancing democracy without strong government institutions, there was little that the U.S. could do to resist the demands.

Hamoudi goes on to explore the effects of the early elections, concluding that the conduct of the polls helped promote sectarian politics and tension.   Hamoudi details battles over the electoral code, and how decisions over various provisions were split along ethnic lines.  This included redrawing district boundaries and the decision to move from a closed list to an open list PR system.  After acknowledging that the elections exacerbated sectarian tension, Hamoudi argues that the international community can, and did, take steps to lesson the effects.  While acknowledging that the surge played a role in this, he believes that the emergence of consensual politics has been the largest factor in ending the fighting.  The trade-off in a consociational system, however, is a decrease in government effectiveness.

Yet the problem with consensual politics is that it requires consensus. If the Shi’a, or the Shi’a and the Kurds working together, were to ignore their Sunni counterparts and proceed without them, as they did in the drafting of the constitution in 2005, ethnic tensions would undoubtedly rise again. Yet to demand full consensus is, almost by necessity, to settle for ineffective governance. These communities hold widely divergent visions of the public order—of state organization, the role of religion, and the respective powers of center and regions.

Hamoudi concludes by stating that until the emergence of political parties with programmatic platforms - a process, which could take decades, if ever - Iraq will have to settle for either an ineffective government with mutual veto points, or a more effective government where large minority populations are largely shutout of the decision-making process.

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