Election Boycott in Iraq

>> Saturday, March 06, 2010

This is a guest post by Dr. Emily Beaulieu, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky.

Contentious elections usually make us nervous. To be sure, elections aren’t the nicest of affairs. At best, elections are competitions where the accompanying rhetoric can, and often does, take a nasty turn. But when elections bring violence, accusations of fraud, and protests (threatened or real)—particularly in places where we want those elections to effect or improve or cement democracy—they are more than simply competitive, and they cause us concern. The good news: sometimes these contentious elections can induce elite concessions and move countries closer to real democracy. The bad news: this is not likely to happen in Iraq.

With the US withdrawal looming, the contention surrounding tomorrow’s election has already raised concerns about the prospects for democracy there. Violence at the early polling stations has added to mounting tension from earlier accusations of electoral malfeasance. Sunnis cried foul (and threatened to boycott) when more than 300 of their candidates were barred from competition in late February. More recently, thousands of supporters of the INA—an opposition coalition of Shia religious parties considered the main rival to al-Maliki’s SOL—are claiming their names have been stricken from voter registers, and are blaming “the Americans” for it.

There are numerous historical examples where similarly contentious elections have produced positive results for democracy. Election boycotts in the Dominican Republic (1974) started that country down a path of resistance that brought down its authoritarian regime within five years. That transition was short-lived, but democratization continued through more contentious elections in the early 1990s. Bangladesh spent the late 1980s to the mid 1990s experiencing a series of highly contentious elections, replete with boycotts, general strikes, mass demonstrations, and violence. These elections brought an end to the country’s military regime and began a process of democratization (even if more work remains to be done). In the former Soviet Union the early 21st century witnessed a series of “Colored Revolutions” where accusations of electoral fraud and massive protests led to leadership alternation in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. And, before recent tragic events, many observers felt that Haiti’s long history of contentious elections might finally have put that country on the road to better, more democratic governance.

In other cases, however, contentious elections have had no positive impact. Election boycotts occurred in Pakistan (1985), Algeria and Egypt (1990), Belarus (2000), and Zimbabwe (2005), with negligible democratic impact. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have all experiences contentious elections, with protests and violence, in the past two decades and politics there remain undemocratic. Most recently, and perhaps most instructively, the boycott of Afghanistan’s presidential election has yet to produce any positive changes for democracy.

Those cases where contentious elections furthered democracy all share one or both of the following traits: a massive ground-swell of domestic support, or pressure from key international actors. If electoral contention gets the people into the streets—clogging capitals and bringing business as usual to a halt, as it did in the Colored Revolutions and Bangladesh—leaders can be pressured to make democratic concessions. Alternately, or additionally, if contentious elections bring key international actors to intervene—as with the US in the Dominican Republic, and the US and the OAS in Haiti—real improvements for democracy are also possible.

So what does this mean for democracy in Iraq? Perhaps the best one could hope for is that the fraud complaints of the Sunni and Shia opposition might lead to an outpouring of domestic pressure for democratic reform. But given the current climate of occupation, where the incumbent is seen as largely indistinguishable from “the Americans”, domestic unrest at this point could be more problematic than productive. And as with Afghanistan, the ambivalence of Iraq’s most important international actor, the US, does not bode well for democracy. When faced with the opposition boycott of the presidential election in Afghanistan, the US chose to support the incumbent in a bid for stability, at the cost of real democratization in that country. Now, at the same time that Ambassador Hill is telling Iraqis that the US wants a clean election everyone knows the administration is hoping desperately to avoid any conflict that would delay the September 1 troop withdrawal. If the US makes this election another choice between democracy and stability, then those who care about democracy in Iraq should indeed be concerned.


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