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Baghdad Dispatch

LAST WEEK, U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi stood before TV cameras, journalists, and diplomats in Baghdad's convention center and outlined his plan for the country's interim government, which will be vital to ensuring progress toward democracy. "There is no substitute for the legitimacy that comes from free and fair elections," Brahimi said. "Iraq will have a genuinely representative government."

But there are different kinds of "representative government," some that merely represent the majority and others that protect the rights of minorities as well. And, unfortunately, the type of elections Brahimi appears to support may usher in the former--which would mean Iraq might get a democracy next year, but certainly not a lasting one.

IN RECENT MONTHS, a gap has developed between how Iraqi liberals envision elections and how the United Nations and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) apparently want to conduct them. The United Nations and the CPA are moving ahead with the idea of party-slate elections, in which voters select their favorite national political party, which then claims a proportional number of seats in parliament. Iraqi liberals, by contrast, favor a constituency-based system, in which contests take place not between national political parties, but between individuals in each local district.

This fissure could have been avoided: For almost a year, the CPA has worked to guide Iraq to a political transition, studying how elections might be used to create a society in which all groups' rights are upheld. I worked for the CPA, as an adviser seconded to Iraq from the Pentagon, between July 2003 and March 2004. In January 2004, a team of democracy experts, visiting Iraq from the United States at the request of the CPA, concluded, "It is fair to say that the two largest parties [in Iraq], Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI] do not at present share a fundamental commitment to the kind of political system that would be defined as 'democratic' in the West." In other words, these two parties had little interest in upholding individual or minority rights. Indeed, discussing Iraq's interim constitution in an interview with Al Hayat, a leading Arabic newspaper, SCIRI adviser Hammam Hammudi recently said, "The law under dispute is temporary and can be changed after one year [after elections]" to give Islam a much more prominent role.

The CPA realized that not only were Dawa and SCIRI uninterested in real democracy, but also that a national party-slate election would likely lead to a rout by these Islamist groups. After all, Dawa -- whose leader, Ibrahim Jafari, regularly polls as Iraq's most popular politician--and SCIRI are well-funded and organized, in part because they enjoy the support of Iran, while secular and liberal groups remain fragmented nationally. Not surprisingly, groups like Dawa and SCIRI favor the party-slate model, which would give them more seats in parliament and perhaps help them legislate Islamic law. "If [SCIRI head Abdul Aziz All Hakim gets fifty percent of the votes, we'll take fifty percent of the seats" and dominate parliament, one of Hakim's supporters told me earlier this year in the lobby of the Iraqi Governing Council building. Conversely, in a party-slate system, "I [would] have no one to support," an Iraqi liberal journalist recently complained to me.

Instead, secular Iraqis support constituency-based elections, which would dilute the national power of the Islamist parties and make politicians more accountable to the people they represent. "Democracy is about accountability," a secular Baghdad district councilman told me. "You can't have democracy if you're not tied to the people." Three liberal Governing Council deputies recently explained to me how a constituency-based system would work. It would provide for a 275-member National Assembly representing electoral districts of some 87,000 Iraqis each. Contests would take place between individuals in each district, and many of Iraq's more liberal Governing Council members probably could win their home districts. Raja Al Khuzai, an outspoken Shia advocate for women's rights, is popular in her hometown of Diwaniya. "She comes down every weekend," a group of professionals told me in January. "She listens." Residents of Khadimiya, home to Iraq's third-holiest Shia shrine, favor Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi. "His father supported us, and he supports us," the caretaker of the shrine explained. "We do not forget our friends."

Minorities and older Iraqis also favor elections based upon constituencies. Distrust of political parties runs deep among older Iraqis, who remember the 1950s and 1960s as a time of pitched street battles between adherents of increasingly shrill leftist and nationalist parties. "The Communists and Baathists used to attack each other in the streets of Mosul," an older Kurdish TV executive told me. Christians, less than 3 percent of Iraq's population, remain concentrated in towns like Alqosh, Ainkawa, and Duhok, where they would be able to elect local Christian representatives; in a national, party-slate system, by contrast, they would probably have no representation. Similarly, Iraq's 150,000 Yezidis, followers of a native pre-Islamic religion, are worried about party-slate elections. In September, when I visited the mayor's office in Sinjar, a largely Yezidi town in western Iraq, he complained, "If we can vote as a unit, we can be a part of any new government."

In a constituency-based electoral system, the uncharismatic, corrupt party hacks who hope to ride to power on the coattails of national party bosses would likely be less successful. Sitting in a teahouse in the southern city of Nasiriya earlier this year, I struck up a conversation with a young waiter, who said he would vote for SCIRI's Hakim. When I asked for whom he would vote if Hakim could not run in his district, the 19-year-old said he did not know any of SCIRI's local party representatives--while the Islamist parties have considerable funds and vibrant, popular leaders, they do not have a large network of capable local politicians. I have had similar conversations in Baghdad, Basra, and Kirkuk. Indeed, if elections were based on constituencies, the support base of Shia populists like Hakim would likely be undermined.

The CPA initially shied away from direct elections altogether. CPA head L. Paul Bremer favored a series of regional caucuses, which might have made politicians accountable to local voters and thus to liberals and minorities. But, ultimately, Bremer buckled to pressure from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani for direct elections, even as Islamist politicians' statements, banners, and slogans hinted at the radicalism of some Iraqi Islamist leaders. And Brahimi and other U.N. officials overseeing the transition remain vague but appear to support the idea of a national party-slate election. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has not even defined electoral districts--a sign that, ultimately, the United States will back a party-slate poll.

Decentralizing Iraq's political system may be the only way to prevent the country from failing apart. Fear of future disenfranchisement at. the hands of a Shia majority contributes to anger and violence in Sunni cities like Baquba, Falluja, and Tikrit. "The Shia can live as they want in Najaf and Karbala," one Baquba businessman told me, "but we don't need them telling us how to live here."

Unfortunately, a single national poll, while easier to administer, will only contribute to this disenfranchisement. Shia Islamists understand the idea of the tyranny of the majority: "The first article in a democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority," influential Karbala cleric Sayyid Hadi Al Modarresi told Al Hayat in March. It's surprising that Brahimi, who hails from Algeria, where Islamists tried to use an election to create a dictatorship, doesn't understand that, too.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2004, issue of the magazine.