Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Iraqi Elections: Way Ahead of Us?

William Harper


February 21, 2005

The results of Iraq's election for a transitional national assembly are in. One election for a representative assembly whose job it is to draw up a constitution is hardly enough to create a stable, democratic government. Moreover, internal divisions in Iraq pose enormous problems for a nation emerging from dictatorship, invasion, occupation, and now the adoption of a historically alien form of government. And the partial Sunni boycott leaves the election short of full legitimacy. Having said that, however, the mode of election is a hopeful sign.

Using a plan drawn up largely by the United Nations, Iraqis voted for one of multiple lists of party candidates in a nationwide constituency. The 275 seats in the transitional assembly were distributed among these lists using a system of proportional representation. According to Dan Murphy, Baghdad bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, "this controversial plan was chosen because it was easier to organize than drawing up electoral districts based on Iraq's cultures and ethnicities." Let's be thankful that organization of geographic districts was deemed too difficult.

Proportional representation was an appropriate mode of election for occupied Iraq because it is an appropriate mode of election for any political community of diverse composition along ethnic, religious, ideological, and/or regional lines. This form of election poses fewer risks of minority exclusion and offers greater inducements to a common political culture than any other form of democratic election process. By contrast, single-member geographic districts contested under plurality rules (as we have in the United States) pose the greatest dangers and offer the fewest inducements to unity. Prior demographic inequalities virtually guarantee the exclusion of minorities from a serious role in government under plurality rules. A unified nation cannot be achieved by denying a "seat at the table" to important social forces, religious or otherwise.

Unity may emerge from a pluriform political landscape if that landscape is tended carefully. At the time of writing, proportional representation appears to have given the Shi'a only a slim overall majority, despite the Sunni's absence. Now the Shi'a must share power with other groups in order to govern effectively.

The Kurds will use their substantial tally of seats to press for greater autonomy. At this early stage, it is unclear whether this demand will further divide Iraq or provide acceptable terms for Kurdish participation in the country's future. Such accommodations are not without precedent.

The American Constitutional Convention of 1787 witnessed similar negotiations to resolve regional and religious demands. Results were mixed. State equality in the Senate effectively defused separatist threats from small states whose delegations went on to give solid support to the amended Constitution. Southern states ultimately rejected accommodation and precipitated civil war. But accommodation of religious diversity proved the worth of prohibiting religious tests for office holding, especially when that was strengthened by the First Amendment prohibition of federal interference with already waning state establishments.

Producing a permanent constitution for Iraq is only the most serious challenge facing a nation fraught with political challenges. But the Iraqis face those challenges armed with the rudiments of a modern, pluralist electoral system. Having such a system already in place has advantages over trying to solve the challenges of diversity through the constitutional process alone, which is necessarily more rigid.

The American failure to adopt a pluralist system was excusable in 1787 when there were few tested models to choose from. In 2005, the persistence of its system is little short of a scandal. Even as Iraq staggers towards a democratic future, it may in this one respect be way ahead of us.

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”