06 March 2010

Article: Iraqi Elections Show America's Wrong Ideas about Democracy's Power

On Sunday, 7 March, the Washington Post will carry an article by Marina Ottaway, the Director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, titled "American foreign policy shouldn't focus on elections, in Iraq or elsewher" [sic]. For some reasons, the article is already online:


The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also published the article early on its website, under the alternative title "Iraqi Elections Show America's Wrong Ideas about Democracy's Power":


Excerpts (from the Washington Post): "Why are we so focused on Iraq's parliamentary election [this Sunday] – to the point that it may dictate how long American forces remain enmeshed in war? Well, we've been in love with foreign elections for two decades now. Since votes in Central and Eastern Europe came to symbolize victory for democracy over communism, the United States has looked to elections as turning points [...]. Foreign policy by election is appealing for simple reasons: We are good at organizing elections. An election result is concrete. Unfortunately, elections aren't all we've built them into. They are not defining moments, but only a small part of much larger and more complicated stories, and they can even, at times, keep democracy from taking root.

"No matter; European countries and the United Nations have joined America in raising the expectations for elections far beyond what they can deliver. While 'elections do not a democracy make' has become a common refrain in Washington and European capitals, in reality the pressure to hold votes, as soon as possible, in countries that are transitioning from autocracy or war remains extremely high. [...] The determination to spread democracy by elections continued in U.S. and U.N. policy toward African countries that were pushed, cajoled and occasionally blackmailed by the threat of suspended aid into holding multiparty balloting. [...]

"No matter how free and fair, elections can reflect only the power shifts that have already taken place, and are not the cause of these shifts. [...] Typically, dozens – or in the case of Iraq, hundreds – of parties form to compete in elections, but they almost always fail against well-established political forces. [...] The groups with the greatest success at the ballot box have usually been those appealing to nationalist sentiments or, more dangerously, to ethnic identities. [...] In Afghanistan, [...] old autocratic trends are reasserting themselves under the democratic veneer [....] Iraq will remain a country riven by sectarian and ethnic divisions [...]. Once the campaign billboards come down in Baghdad, the same politicians will make deals and the same groups will try to make up for their lack of political clout with violence."

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