Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Smells like Success

I think that we'll have to wait for a few more days before we can say for certain, but the initial indications are that the Iraqi election was an overwhelming success. Currently, election officials estimate that 60% of eligible voters made an appearance at the polls -- better than you typically find during a US presidential election. While the turnout was lower in the Sunni dominated regions, overall it appears that they voted in significant, if not substantial, numbers despite calls for a boycott. And while 34 died in the sporadic attacks over the course of the day, the violence was not enough to subdue the population's democratic spirit.

Suddenly, and perhaps unreasonably, I'm filled with a sense of hope for the future.

As I've said before, the election was only the beginning. But its successful execution reveals much. First, it shows us that there are limits to what the insurgency can accomplish. Despite their threats, they were unable to mount any large-scale attacks, nor were they able to produce enough low-level chaos to significantly affect voter participation. True, their efforts were stymied by massive security operations conducted by Iraqi and coalition forces -- and only for one day. But, if you're going to choose only one day in which to pull out all the stops in order to limit the violence, Sunday was it.

Beyond their operational deficiencies, it is now clear that the goals of the insurgents are not completely congruent with those of the population. They may share their desire to evict the US occupiers, but the agreement appears to stop there. Therefore, it appears increasingly likely that, once the shared irritant is removed (i.e. we leave), the Iraqi citizens will embrace the legitimately elected government rather than anything that arises from the insurgent elements. If this holds, it means that the days of an effective, significant insurgency are numbered.

Second, the turnout suggests that most of the country is willing to work within the existing system. Even though turnout was relatively low amongst Sunni Muslims, their participation was not insignificant. I suspect that this will affect the strategy ultimately employed by Sunni leadership. Even before the election they were signaling their intentions to participate in the drafting of the permanent constitution, doing so even as they called for a boycott. Their enthusiasm for participation will surely be emboldened now that it is clear that substantial numbers of Sunni citizens wish it.

The positives don't stop there, for if the Sunni opt to participate in the drafting of the permanent constitution, the odds of a truly democratic government sprouting in Iraq increase dramatically. One of the most critical features of constitutional democracy is the protection of minority interests (discussed here). The ratification process as currently articulated essentially grants veto power to each ethnic subdivision. Therefore, all parties have a shared interest in constructing exactly such a system. The Sunnis and Kurds, as minorities, will demand protections and the Shi'ites will most likely be willing to concede them rather than restarting the entire process from scratch (which would almost certainly produce the exact same result).

All of this boils down to one thing: the citizens of Iraq are invested in the system. It may not be perfect and it might be light years from the constitutional democracy imagined by the Bush administration, but the desire for a peaceful solution to the problem of Iraqi autonomy was clearly on display this weekend. As I said above, Iraq isn't out of the woods. Yet, it is apparent that the foundation required for ultimate success exists. The path to a democratic Iraq might still be derailed, but for the first time in the life of this entire ugly episode, I can feel the hope.
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