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Iraq’s Dysfunctional Democracy

It was doomed from the start by a fatal constitutional flaw: proportional representation. By Jon Basil Utley Washington waits and waits while constantly demanding that Iraq’s government function properly—that its leaders compromise and work together, that it at least provide electricity, trash pick-up, and minimal services to its citizens. Yet all this is impossible because […]

It was doomed from the start by a fatal constitutional flaw: proportional representation.

By Jon Basil Utley

Washington waits and waits while constantly demanding that Iraq’s government function properly—that its leaders compromise and work together, that it at least provide electricity, trash pick-up, and minimal services to its citizens. Yet all this is impossible because of the structure of government America set up there. Hopelessly dysfunctional, it was doomed from the start.

There is simply no way Iraq’s government could or can succeed. Think first how we destroyed its civil structure—its police, civil service, most of its functions of government, even schoolteachers were fired en masse. Then it’s easier to comprehend that Washington also set up an unworkable government. Indeed, an article in the American Prospect, “The Apprentice,” indicates that wrecking Iraq as a nation state was intentional. According to the article, David Wurmser, who subsequently became Vice President Cheney’s principal foreign-policy adviser

[urged] in 1997: that if Saddam Hussein were driven from power, Iraq would be “ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families,” and out of the “coming chaos in Iraq and most probably in Syria,” the United States and her principal allies, namely Israel and Jordan, could redraw the region’s map.

Generally there is little American understanding or concern for how foreign governments function, especially their electoral systems. Our policy is usually just to promote an election and then classify a nation as having achieved democracy. Rarely do we define the institutional requirements that can guarantee limited government, protection of minority views and populations, accountability of government officials, the rule of law, property rights, an independent judiciary, and the host of other prerequisites necessary to make democracies work.

Indeed, not only does Washington typically ignore the traditions of government that already exist in the nations we attempt to reconstruct, but our bureaucrats do not even heed the lessons of Anglo-American political history. Instead of devising a system at all like our own, professional state-builders take inspiration from an idea hatched in the faculty lounge: proportional representation.

Iraq’s constitution has several mortal failings

Proportional representation (PR) is a system whereby voting is based on party lists of candidates chosen by the party’s leadership. Voters do not get to choose individual candidates and may not know anything about many of the names on the list. A party receives a number of seats in the legislature proportional to its percentage of the popular vote. The candidates awarded seats are taken in order from the top of the party’s list. The PR system is much liked by political leaders because they can always put their own names high on the list and thus virtually ensure their perpetual re-election. But even lower-ranking candidates are not fully accountable to the voters because their first allegiance is to the party bosses who manage the lists.

This electoral system is bad enough in the best of circumstances, but to make matters worse the whole of Iraq is treated as a single electoral district, the worst kind of PR. (In some PR systems there are multiple districts and candidates may have some concern for local interests.) PR can provide effective government in small, homogeneous nations such as in Scandinavia, but for larger nations it is not effective. The system causes most voters to vote along ethnic or tribal lines because they fear that others are voting that way too. For example, if Shi’ites are voting for other Shi’ites, Sunnis will tend to vote for other Sunnis to counter them.

Contrast this to the systems of the United States and Great Britain, where majority coalitions can fracture and recombine along lines of local and economic self-interest. In the Anglo-Saxon system, voters are represented by candidates whom they can know, who are accountable to their districts, focused on local issues, and who can be voted out individually.

PR, by contrast, gives inordinate swing power in coalition government to very small minority parties (as I explain with other factors in earlier article, “Problems of Proportional Representation”). An excellent analysis by Michael Greve at the American Enterprise Institute considers other flaws with the PR systems that “well-meaning UN officials, NGOs, and U.S. advisers” have imposed on “numerous fledgling democracies, including Iraq.” He warned that Iraq’s “constitution puts a hydra-headed executive at the mercy of the parliament.” Moreover, Greve explains, Iraq’s PR system makes a mockery of federalism: “In conflicts between regional and federal law, regional law shall prevail—thus providing potent incentives to extort fiscal transfers.”

Kanan Makia of Brandeis University detailed other problems five years ago in the New York Times. He foresaw that the constitution would “further weaken the already failing central Iraqi state” because it created “a supremely powerful Parliament” which was in reality an “artificially constructed collection of ethnic and sectarian voting block.” The president and prime minister can be dismissed by a simple majority vote in the single-house Parliament. In addition, “the constitution encourages the transformation of governorates and local administrations into powerful, nearly sovereign regions … while the articles dealing with executive power … encourage new regions to be created at the expense of the federal union.”

“The constitution may well be more of a prelude to civil war than a step forward,” warned another expert in 2005, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Rather than an inclusive document, it is more a recipe for separation based on Shiite and Kurdish privilege,” he wrote, as quoted in an article by Robin Wright in the Washington Post. The Post report also warned that “the Shiite and Kurdish militias are the de facto security forces in their territories and are loyal to their own political leaders.”

By 2006, then CIA director Michael Hayden was acknowledging that in Iraq, “the inability of the government to govern seems irreversible.” He added, “We and the Iraqi government do not agree on who the enemy is … . It’s a legitimate question whether strengthening the Iraqi security forces helps or hurts, when they are viewed as a predatory element.”

In 2007, Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s former president, now vying for power, also explained in the New York Times how proportional representation stymied effective government.

It is scarcely worth mentioning that Iraq is far different from the cases of Japan and Germany after World War II. Comparing them is preposterous. Germany and Japan were functioning, ordered states with cohesive populations. They confronted a Communist danger that threatened to swallow them if they failed to rebuild. They also had strong, competent American generals in charge of occupation—and it is interesting to note that General Patton refused demands from Washington that he dismiss all low-level German government official, many of whom had been Nazi Party members, as was done with Baathists in Iraq. In Japan, General MacArthur also kept on regional government functionaries. He drafted a realistic constitution criticized by many Japanese for not using vague and consensus-focused language in accordance with their traditions. Yet to this day, the Japanese have not substantially changed it.

The nearly decade-long U.S. occupation of Iraq has been in vain. We are certainly not “building democracy.” Nor has the entire misadventure served our own national interest. Indeed, we are now nearly bankrupted and less safe as al-Qaeda grows and Muslims all over the world see Iraq’s American-created “democracy” as dysfunctional and discredited. Who today would trust the U.S. to create a democracy in Afghanistan or Iran?

Washington’s neoconservatives may look benignly on an Iraq whose dysfunctional government serves as an excuse to keep the region occupied with 50,000 troops and massive air bases. But America’s “mission accomplished” has created an unstable, economically devastated nation that will be yet another constant source of instability for the whole Middle East.

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative.

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