Thursday, January 27, 2005

All Hails, democracy by force!

The people of Iraq will go to the polls this weekend in what may be the closest thing to legitimate elections since the 1950s. I want to make clear just what we are looking at here as this “historic” moment comes to pass.

The first problem is that you cannot have a legitimate election in the presence of an occupying foreign power. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the fact that the U.S. is the only real source of security means that only those political operatives who can reach some level of consensual cooperation with the appointed interim government have the necessary logistic resources to build power bases and campaign in any meaningful way. The only way you can succeed is to collaborate, in other words, because the only security is provided from without.

The second problem is that, to paraphrase Natan Sharansky, elections are only the most conspicuous aspect of democracy, and hardly the most important. A free election is not the foundation of a democracy, but rather the symptom of a series of institutional relationships that foster a political system in which the vote can react to the exchange of forces within these institutions. This is something that we forget in the U.S. And this is why, when the Iraqi election takes place the Bush administration will be all smiles and triumphalism. For most of us here, the vote is the only real contact we have with our ostensible democracy. Therefore, we come to imagine that an election that takes place anywhere in the world is the sign of a functioning democracy.

The day of the vote will be bloody. This will not come to pass as it did in Afghanistan, where the security situation was vastly less complicated. The insurgency will not wane after the election. On the contrary, the results of the election will be interpreted as further evidence of the occupations infiltrative and divisive nature and will breed only more injustice on both sides. Civil war is perhaps long overdue in Iraq, and while the Kurdish north has remained relatively quiet during the war, the city of Kirkuk may soon become another flashpoint, another Falluja, another Mosul.

The elections will only be a new beginning, not an end, to this great crime.

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