We have had elections in Iraq, now we need democracy

Elections may have winners and losers but democracy is not a zero-sum game.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Will of the people. Iraqi lawmakers attend a session of parliament in Baghdad. (AP)
Will of the people. Iraqi lawmakers attend a session of parliament in Baghdad. (AP)

LONDON - Iraqis are still debating whether the country was better off prior to the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, when the country was less free but arguably more stable.

Some argue that having strong leaders kept the country safer for decades while democracy has opened Pandora’s box and exposed Iraq to a sectarian civil war as well as terrorism, leaving little room for enjoying gained freedoms. Others say the price of freedom and democracy was worth it and that the present is better than the rose-tinted view of the past.

Both views appear to be based on the wrong assumption that there is an actual democracy in Iraq. This assumption has led to prescribing the wrong fixes for Iraq’s continuous woes.

Those who blame the country’s ills on democracy have no clear alternative: They can’t turn back time nor raise the dead. We are where we are today because of the mistakes of the past. They must look to the future if they want to see better days.

There are many “strong men” today claiming to know what’s best for the country, so who gets to decide who will lead and how? There is no road map on how to violently overthrow a government and forever hold on to yours. Only one of Iraq’s post-monarchy leaders lived to see his “retirement” days. Insurgencies may disrupt the lives of your opponents but they do not improve your own.

Those who assert that Iraq is democratic base their claims on the fact that the country has been having elections since 2005. Voting alone does not guarantee having a democratic process. Democracy must reflect the will of the winning majority without overriding the rights and freedoms of electoral losers. The fact that majority rule is better than minority rule does not mean that the former should be non-inclusive. Elections may have winners and losers but democracy is not a zero-sum game.

All of that is assuming that having — as well as running in — elections was free and fair. Many Sunni Arabs who boycotted previous elections in Iraq did so because the candidates that they would have voted for were against the US occupation and thus were not going to run in 2005. This led some voters to distrust the political system that has resulted.

Subsequently, with the rise of displaced Sunni Arabs as a result of the insurgency in their areas, many voters did not get the chance to cast their ballot even when they wanted to. That problem remains stronger than ever today and Sunni Arabs have been joined by Turkmen and other minorities whose lives have yet to return to normalcy following the rise and fall of the Islamic State, which had sought to hijack the Sunni cause.

The Kurdish minority, which has long complained of discrimination at the hands of Arab rulers, is finding itself accused of abusing minorities in the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In fact, many Kurds are looking for alternatives to the two dominant parties there, albeit with difficulties as those two parties control the KGR’s peshmerga and allow little room for fair competition.

The KRG vote on Kurdistan independence, which was backed by a majority of Kurds, was seen by many as undemocratic because it did not give Iraqis elsewhere a say on whether the country as a whole should break up.

The ethnic and sectarian tensions have led many Iraqis to give their votes to parties that match more their backgrounds instead of voting for candidates based on their election manifestos or political agendas.

Many members of the Shia community, who, too, have complained of discrimination prior to 2003, have yet to find utopia despite being ruled by Shia-led governments for more than a decade. With the rise of the strength of Iran-backed Shia militias, other communities are questioning their country’s independence, let alone democracy.

Iraqis across ethnic and sectarian lines have been questioning the transparency of elections, amid allegations of irregularities, fraud or bias in the voting system and those who oversee it.

The only way forward for Iraq is to take more steps towards an all-inclusive democracy, based on free and fair elections that all the components of the population trust. Only then can Iraqis begin to seriously address the country’s problems. We have not reached there yet but we definitely should not be going back.