Elections are being used as a synonym for the establishment of democracy as well as a means to cure all that ails Iraq, despite the lack of organizational integrity and infrastructure needed to support civic society. It is dangerous to conflate one election with democracy, and it is even more perilous to assume that the problems that plague Iraq will disappear like so many ballots descending into boxes.
Iraq is...problematic in some respects in that the elections themselves will bring to a head many of the simmering ethnic/sectarian tensions that have thus far remained under wraps...In an inversion of conventional wisdom, elections could be the precursor to civil war...
More than three years later, Ilan Goldenberg argues that we are faced with a remarkably similar dynamic:
The new conventional wisdom inside American military and diplomatic circles is that sustainable stability can only be achieved by bringing these groups into the political process through provincial elections. President Bush and Secretary Rice have both made holding provincial elections a central political benchmark in Iraq’s road to reconciliation...
Unfortunately rather than act as the natural next step on the way towards stability in Iraq, provincial elections at this time are much more likely to simply be the next major spark that plunges parts of Iraq back into full scale chaos. Elections are the exact opposite of conflict resolution. They are, by their very nature, an intense struggle for power. When they occur in stable liberal democracies they lead to increased tensions and partisanship (Just ask Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain or Mitt Romney). But these tensions are resolved peacefully through liberal institutions that guarantee a certain (Though not always perfect) level of fairness. However, when elections take place in unstable societies that don’t have strong institutions, they can often lead to chaos, especially if there is no confidence in the results (See Kenya or potentially Pakistan in two weeks).
Given these tendencies it’s not hard to imagine that provincial elections in Iraq would likely have horrific and unintended consequences. First, there are some practical questions about how one would manage an election. Two million people have fled Iraq and another two million are internally displaced. Given this mass migration, it’s hard to conceive of how Iraq would develop coherent voter rolls.
But even taking this consideration aside, provincial elections are still likely to lead to chaos.
Then again, there are problems with not holding elections as well: namely, many Sunni regions lack legitimate representation due to boycotts of prior elections by the local Sunni populations [UPDATE: See, ie, Teh Aardvark]. Further, elections could integrate many of the tribal and CLC elements into certain official Iraqi governement structures which is a prerequisite for eventual normalization. Speaking of those tribal and CLC groups, Goldenberg also makes an important distinction - one that I admit to glossing over for the sake of convenience even though I should know better as I've seen this clarification before.
Just in case the situation wasn't confusing enough as is. Also, discouraging.
In the Sunni parts of the country an internal power struggle is already under way. Members of the Anbar Salvation Council (ASC) are being targeted for assassination by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is still a major force. Meanwhile, there are increasing tensions between the rising Awakening movements and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls most of the local provincial councils in the Sunni areas and represents the Sunnis in the national government. Add to that mix brewing tensions between the “Concerned Local Citizens (CLC)” groups, which are former members of the insurgency and the ASC that consist of the local tribes. These two groups are usually thought to be one and the same, but they are different and in actuality the leadership of the CLCs is frustrated with the ASC, which they feel has taken much of the credit for their hard work against AQI.
(cross-posted to TIA)
Update By Cernig
Think Progress has the news that the Bush administration are walking back the idea that the US will guarantee the Iraqi government's security against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. If they keep that part of their planned agreement, then it won't be an agreement it will be a treaty and Congress will want a say. The administration, desperate to keep Congress out of the Iraqi loop, have therefore publicly walked back the security guarantee. But as TP notes, given that Bush attached a signing statement to a defense authorization bill last week, saying that he would disregard a provision that “bars funding for permanent bases in Iraq,” that shouldn't reassure anyone all that much.
Even so, not having such an explicit guarantee - even if one exists de facto - will put the Maliki government on an even shakier foundation than it already has been.