There has been a certain amount of cheering over the outcome of the Iraqi elections for a couple of reasons: the elections were not marred by serious violence, and the elections happened. This has led some to declare doubters of Iraqi democracy to have been wrong, but I am not quite sure how anyone comes to this conclusion. Four years in, most Westerners believed Russia to be an example of a largely successful transition to democratic government, and five or six years after that they would have had to conclude that the mass democratic element of the new system enabled the populist authoritarianism and illiberalism of Putin. This development is usually described as a “turn away” from democracy, but it is really just the natural end of democracy when democracy is not hedged roundabout with constitutional restrictions. Many of the same people who seem happy to claim that Russians are naturally prone to authoritarian government are horrified by the argument that democracy might not work well in a fissiparous multiethnic country with no significant tradition of constitutional government when it is part of one of our nation-building exercises. To some significant degree, Russians have rejected western European and American models because they associated them with national weakness and economic upheaval–how much more are Iraqis in the future going to associate the current system installed by a foreign occupation with the death and mayhem of the last five years? Do we really think that there is not going to be a backlash or political upheaval directed against the government?
Unless our forces maintain a permanent presence in Iraq to prop up the government, what will prevent officers in the newly-established Iraqi armed forces from seizing power in the event that the civilian government becomes too corrupt or ineffectual? We have seen in Bangladesh and Thailand very recently how the military will insert itself in the political process to topple corrupt elected governments, or at the very least the military has used the government’s corruption as a pretext to settle disputes that it has with the civilian leadership. Is there any precedent in modern Near Eastern history that would give anyone confidence that democratically elected government in Iraq will survive or that we can be sure that Iraq’s government is anything like the relatively stable democratic government of Turkey of today? Judging from the Turkish example, it might be several decades interrupted by numerous military juntas before we see something comparable in Iraq, and in the Turkish case the Westernized republican system was something imposed from within by nationalists and not from without, and even then it was not readily accepted and had to be imposed. Indeed, what will deter a future U.S. administration from colluding in a coup against the civilian government (or at least approving it after the fact) if that government seems to be tilting too strongly towards Iran? What will keep future Iraqi leaders from meeting the fate of either Mossadegh or Bhutto? The democratist cheerleaders likely have no idea, but they are positive that one more round of elections vindicates their fantasy.
Iraq has had yet another round of elections, but elections, as many of the same people would readily admit when it comes to Palestinian elections, are not always sufficient to create functioning, effective self-government. They may instead enable what we would consider to be some of the worst political actors. Nothing fundamental has changed in Iraq. The ruling party is still sectarian and Islamic fundamentalist in nature, and most of the other parties are still defined by religion, ethnicity or “secularism” (which is the main expression of Sunni sectarian identity), which portends continued tensions and rivalries among politicized religious and ethnic blocs. Even if they emphasize these differences less and stress their Iraqi identity more, the composition of the parties has not changed that much. None of the fissures in the Iraqi state has been healed. They have merely been covered over, and they will likely be exposed as Iraq experiences the woes of the global recession and declining oil revenues. Above all, Iraq is a petro-state whose political and economic stability depends on revenues from natural resource extraction and exporting, and the internal problems that Venezuela, Iran and others are facing as their oil revenues evaporate apply to Iraq as well. The temptation to become more authoritarian in a petro-state when its revenues are falling is strong, and there is nothing in modern Iraqi history that suggests that populist authoritarianism will not prevail there as it has in other democratized petro-states. In other words, even if Iraqi democracy survives all of the dangers listed above there is not much reason to believe that this will lead to good government.