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Iraq’s Half Step

The relatively successful election in Iraq is a major victory for democracy, but not necessarily for liberal reform in the Middle East.

This is an important distinction. The anti-democratic forces who tried to stop people from voting there were Sunni Muslim Arab terror groups, ranging from supporters of Saddam Hussein’s deposed dictatorship to followers of Osama bin Ladin’s extremist Islamism. Because Sunni Arabs, comprising less than 25% of the population, knew that they could not win a democratic election, many of their leaders urged a boycott.

By contrast, 75% of Iraq’s population is composed of Shi’a Muslim Arabs, who know that they will control the new regime, and Kurds, who want local autonomy. Thus, a vast majority of the population were sure that a democratically elected government would serve their interests and eagerly participated at the polls. Indeed, Shi’a Muslim clerics ordered their people – including women – to vote, warning that to stay home on Election Day was a sin.

But if high turnout, albeit based more on communal self-interest than belief in democracy, was the good news from Iraq’s election, the bad news is the leadership they chose, which is not democratically minded. Liberal reform parties that tried to transcend communal identities and appeal to all Iraqis did not do well. The victorious coalition follows Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who can be described as a moderate Islamist, but many of its members are extreme. In the future, especially without Sistani, who is 74 years old, the new regime could turn into a dictatorship.