Ballot Insecurity

Six months ago, the question on the lips of most critics of the occupation of Iraq was one that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had posed: Why not hold elections by June 30? At the time, the U.S.–led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) claimed that it was just not possible. The United Nations agreed. And so all parties settled for an appointed interim government and a January 2005 election date.

But with security deteriorating, the need for a legitimately representative Iraqi government grows more urgent every day. Critics of the transition plan -- including Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- are once more asking why it shouldn't be possible to speed Iraq down the path to representative government. What exactly must be, and what exactly can be, accomplished before Iraqis can go to the polls?

In the past, the most commonly cited reasons for delaying elections were logistical. Iraq had no voter rolls, and electoral laws were needed to resolve fundamental questions, such as who should be considered an Iraqi citizen, whether representation should be direct or proportional, and whether or not there should be regional districting in national elections. A United Nations team has just finished overseeing the design of that legislation. (There will be proportional representation and no regional districts; exiles are citizens, but not their children.) A seven-member electoral commission, composed of Iraqis appointed by the UN, will oversee the election's logistics. Is it possible for the commission to complete its vast task by January 2005? "Yes," says Sean Dunne, chief of operations for the UN's electoral assistance division. "Is it happening on an extremely tight timetable, and under challenging operational circumstances? Of course it is."

But such difficulties haven't been the only, or even the most serious, cause for delaying elections. There is also a pressing security problem that will likely produce widespread voter intimidation. As the Iraqi scholar Faleh Abdul Jabar writes in a May 2004 report for the U.S. Institute of Peace, "Like many other economically devastated societies in the immediate aftermath of conflict, Iraqis are plagued with violence, awash in arms, and lacking a mature political class with experience in conflict resolution and consensus building. Given the existence of warlords and party militias, direct elections now would hardly reflect rational free choices."

Nor would they be likely to produce a moderate or stable political class. As Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior associates Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers pointed out in an October 2003 policy brief, early elections in comparable situations -- in Cambodia, Angola, Liberia, Bosnia, and elsewhere -- have a long and storied history of failure. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, political advantage nearly always accrues to extremists, who are often perceived as tougher and better able to protect the interests of ethnic and sectarian groups. In the case of Iraq, this was all the more likely because the country's civic and political life had been so thoroughly destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Outside of the Kurdish north, only a few politicians have managed to make their names or their agendas known during the chaotic 15 months of occupation, and these are the ones with organizational advantages, such as clerical status, service on the U.S.–appointed Iraqi Governing Council, or Baathist ties. Religious Shia parties reportedly receive substantial Iranian funding. Even Iraqis who would like to vote for moderate, nonsectarian candidates are hard-pressed to find them.

In an ideal world, then, waiting for January 2005 to hold Iraqi elections would mean that when the time came, voters would feel safe and find themselves choosing among candidates with clear messages and organized party bases. It's pretty clear that no such moment is forthcoming, though, either now, in the fall, or probably even by January. But there are a few broad areas in which the interim government and the coalition powers simply must make progress in the next six months for even drastically reduced expectations to be met.

Make the defense of the Iraqi people, as opposed to counterinsurgency operations, the top security priority.
As spectacularly horrifying as the political violence in Iraq has been, for ordinary people it is only one element in a general climate of fear. Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, notes that violent crime -- including murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping—has become commonplace in the new Iraq. (Rough statistics compiled by the Brookings Institution place Baghdad's murder rate for May at 70 per 100,000, as compared with 43 per 100,000 for Washington, D.C.)

These problems are both pressing and soluble. "You cannot really reduce political terrorism very quickly," says Baram. "That's a problem that will bedevil the Iraqi people for two, three, four, five years. But you can reduce substantially ordinary crime."

To do so will require what Hoover Institution fellow and former CPA senior adviser Larry Diamond says should be a "massive effort" to recruit, train, and equip an Iraqi police force. "The interim government will do the recruiting. We need to take care of training and equipping," says Diamond, who has been fiercely critical of the CPA's failure to adequately equip Iraqi security forces in the past. The ranks of this security force would have to be drawn heavily from some of the nine militias (comprising some 100,000 armed men) that have agreed, at least formally, to disband and reintegrate into a national security force. Diamond cautioned in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that these men must participate in Iraq's security forces as individuals rather than as units with their militia command structures intact. Otherwise, Diamond warns, the country risks a bloody dismemberment.

Provided that this recruitment and reintegration effort is successful, a substantial police force could be amassed by as early as October, Baram estimates. At that time, with three or four months to go until elections, Baram suggests that officers patrol every corner in Baghdad in groups of three. With such a show of force, Baram is confident that the crime rate could drop by as much as 80 percent. That might not end the insurgency, but it could go a long way toward draining the swamp. Says James Dobbins, director of the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center and a senior adviser on post-conflict situations under four presidents, "Military operations against insurgencies are won by gaining the support of the population and offering them security.

It's their security and not yours that's important." What we need, says Dobbins, is "less talk of offensive counterterrorism, more talk of defending the local population."

Attack infrastructure problems.

The interim government needs to demonstrate effectiveness on the ground. That's the single best way to win the population's trust and to enlist ordinary people in the project of reconstruction, political and otherwise. It's also vitally necessary. Baram suggests a massive public-works program that would employ as many as a million currently unemployed men at $150 a month to do things like "clear up the horrendous garbage all over Baghdad, and clear up the sewage swamps." Baram also suggests ordering thousands of generators to get Baghdad's electricity cranking in the summer if the grid itself can't be repaired quickly or thoroughly enough. These are investments, but they would surely bear fruit in terms of the long-term prospects of a project into which the Bush administration has already sunk American blood, treasure, and prestige. Baram notes that something as simple as lighting the streets of Baghdad through the night could dramatically reduce crime and lift morale.

Help independent parties enter the political process by making public funds available.
According to Diamond, in today's Iraq, a vast financial and organizational advantage has come to rest in the hand of the big parties, some of which are funded by neighboring states. In his Senate testimony, Diamond suggests that "as soon as an independent Iraqi electoral administration is established, we should help it create a transparent fund for the support (in equal amounts) of all political parties that pass a certain threshold of demonstrated popular support, and we should fund it generously (perhaps with an initial infusion of $10 [million] to $20 million)." The dollar amount notwithstanding, arranging a fund of this nature seems like a good way to avoid meddling or picking favorites while still making sure that independent parties can stay in the game.

Safeguard the independence of the electoral commission.
Dunne points out that for the Iraqi people to feel ownership of the political process, the electoral commission must remain free of political meddling, including any from the interim government or from outside powers. Physically securing every polling place may not be possible, Dunne suspects, but "political security" may prove just as important. "Security has to come from the Iraqi people's belief that they are participating in free and fair elections," he says.

It's been a long climb down from the glimmering hopes with which the neoconservative thinkers, at least, approached this war. Even if the aforementioned goals are achievable -- and they are modest compared with the goals of a year ago—hardly anyone expects liberal democracy to smoothly follow. "Elections themselves are a polarizing event," says Dobbins. "We have to accept that."