Preposterous Universe

Saturday, January 29, 2005
Election weekend

Voting has already started in the Iraqi elections, with expatriates voting over the weekend ahead of the main event tomorrow. Regardless of anyone's opinion about whether we should have gone to war, or what the ultimate outcome will be, we can all join in the hope that things go as well as possible, and that history will remember this weekend as a step toward democracy.

Having an election doesn't make you a democracy, of course; Saddam Hussein had plenty of elections. Even having a contested election isn't nearly enough. You can't claim to have a working democracy until you have an election in which the ruling party actually loses and hands over power; Iraq has a very long way to go. It's not easy even under fairly peaceful circumstances, as people in Ukraine will attest; but it can happen. Sometimes it never does, as people in Russia can attest; if you have elections in which the ruling party can't lose, that's nothing more than a conventional strongman regime.

Nobody knows what Iraq will look like ten years from now, and anyone who claims to is just whistling in the dark. It might be a struggling but maturing democracy, or a repressive dictatorship, or have broken into pieces, or simply be a chaotic mess roiled by perpetual civil war. It may even be an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, pursuing a vigorous program to develop weapons of mass destruction. That would be kind of ironic. But this is not a case where anyone should hope for the worst just so they can say "I told you so."

In the short term, the fix is in -- we pretty much know who will come out as the winners. Enough so that George Bush can say with confidence that we will withdraw American troops if the new government requests it, secure in the knowledge that it would never happen. I don't mean "the fix is in" in the sense of actual fraud, just the conventional power that incumbents wield; I suspect candidates from Iraq's current ruling parties will enjoy at least as much of an advantage as incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives, who typically win about 95% of the time.

The long term is less rosy. There is plenty of reason to be skeptical that the elections will lead smoothly into a functioning democratic system, as argued in this study from the Project on Defense Alternatives (via Eric Alterman). They're certainly taking place under trying conditions. Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber reminds us about the Lancet study that found that the war caused somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000 Iraqi deaths that wouldn't have occurred if we hadn't invaded (see also his earlier posts here and here). It's a sobering finding, which didn't receive nearly as much media attention as you might expect, because of a sort of anti-October-surprise effect: because it was rushed into print just before the Presidential elections, media outlets were wary of hyping it for fear of appearing unbalanced. People can argue about the numbers all they like, but the undeniable fact is that Iraqi citizens have been living amidst terrible acts of violence (intentional and unintentional) for a long time now. (Update: via Majikthise, read this Sy Hersh speech at tingilinde.) It's not the best environment in which to nurture a democracy.

But we can hope.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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