Today’s elections in Iraq are brimming with ironies. A celebration of democracy and freedom features curfews under which citizens are not allowed on the streets after dark, candidates fearful of appearing in public, stores and restaurants closed, concrete barriers restricting movement in major cities and heavily armed police and security forces everywhere.
It would be easy to be overly cynical about all this. The evidences of a nascent police state are the result of failure — by the semi-sovereign Iraqi government and the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority before it — to establish a modicum of stability and security, which has provided opportunities for an increasingly active insurgency to use violence and terror to disrupt normal life.
More important than the outward signs of chaos is the fact that this election highlights some important distinctions between freedom and democracy.
Strictly speaking, democracy is simply a method of choosing rulers. Most Westerners like to hope it implies other aspects of a civilized order: a strong and active civil society, civil libertarian respect for the rights of individuals and minorities, assurance that a majority will rule with restraint rather than repressively.
Unfortunately, there is almost no tradition of such governance in Iraq; before Saddam it was oligarchs and monarchs, before that the Ottomans. Iraqis tend to identify as members of tribal or religious groups rather than as individuals with varying political persuasions.
Marina Ottaway, who specializes in emerging democratic movements in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the most important question about the election is “whether it will start a real political process in Iraq. Until now the process has been very narrow, controlled from the top by a very few people. If it can begin to broaden to include wide consultation before decisions are made, there may be hope.”
If the outcome today, however much violence is involved, is seen as reasonably legitimate by most Iraqis — not Americans, not journalists, not the “international community,” but Iraqis — there may be hope. Those who prefer the U.S. military commitment to be ended as soon as feasible should hope it turns out that way.