The next hurdle to democracy

Although Shiites are the majority in Iraq, they remain deeply split. The crucial question now is whose values the elected National Assembly chooses to enshrine in a new constitution.

By Jonathan Steele

Published January 31, 2005 2:45PM (EST)

Whoever wins Sunday's election, the crucial issue for Iraq over the coming months -- apart from the future of the insurgency and whether foreign troops give a timetable for leaving -- will be the process of writing Iraq's first democratic constitution. The 275 members chosen Sunday for the National Assembly will be in charge of the process. Will the new constitution enshrine sharia law? Will it protect women's property and divorce rights? Will it maintain the system of federalism that was written into Iraq's temporary constitution by the Americans a year ago? If it does not, will this provoke the Kurds in northern Iraq to break away?

If Sunday night's early indications of support for the incumbent, Ayad Allawi, in the largely Shiite southern provinces is confirmed in Baghdad and even those Sunni areas that voted, he will be assured of staying in the job. He took a risk in standing on his own ticket rather than seeking to ally himself with the Kurds and Shiites with whom he is in coalition in the present government.

But he decided to put his own reputation to the test, a that which appears to have paid off. He had the advantage of incumbency, and in recent days many Iraqis interviewed by reporters praised him for raising pensions and salaries for teachers and other government workers as well as the police.

In a country of huge unemployment this classic populism may have been as significant as his image as a "strong leader for a safe country," as his campaign slogan put it. The prime minister was also helped by huge name recognition in a field where most candidates had little chance or time to get themselves known, especially in conditions of heavy insecurity that made campaigning almost impossible everywhere outside the Kurdish areas and a few cities in the Shiite south.

Television coverage became the crucial weapon. Allawi was constantly in the news, and he also dominated the paid advertising on satellite channels. What funding he had from U.S. sources, official or unofficial, is not clear, but he is certainly Washington's favorite.

Even if the Shiite religious parties were to get more seats than Allawi in the Assembly, they would probably help keep him in power as a gesture to the Americans. Allawi is a Shiite, so from that point of view he is acceptable to the Shiite clerics. None of the big religious parties is in a mood to confront the Americans. The best-known radical Shiite, Muqtada al-Sadr, did not run.

The issue of Shiite dominance can be exaggerated. They are the biggest population group in Iraq, but it does not follow that they would want to enforce a Shiite line, even if there were one. They are deeply split. It is mainly a matter of symbolism to have a Shiite prime minister after decades of rule by leaders from the Sunni minority, whether it was the king imposed by the British or, later, Saddam Hussein.

The real issue among the Shiites, and it is shared by Sunni moderates, is whether religious or secular politicians get their values enshrined in the new constitution. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, certainly sets more store on getting the right constitution than on who forms the government.

So the next Iraqi government is likely to be similar to the present coalition of religious and secular groups, heavily dominated by former exiles. Under the temporary constitution the prime minister picks the Cabinet, which is then approved by the National Assembly.

It may not be clear for a day or two what proportion of seats the Sunnis will get. Because turnouts will have been lower than in Shiite and Kurdish areas, they are likely to be underrepresented in the assembly. Sunday's vote was on a simple system of proportional representation with the whole of Iraq treated as a single constituency.

Since the assembly oversees the writing of the constitution, and does not do it itself, there is scope for making up the "Sunni deficit" by appointing Sunnis to the drafting committee. If ignored, they have a potential veto. The constitution is to be put to a referendum in the fall. If more than a third of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote it down, the draft falls. Since Sunnis form a majority in at least four provinces, this gives the drafters a considerable incentive to take Sunni interests into account.

The big unknown is what effect Sunday's successful vote will have on the insurgency. President Bush warned Americans recently that it would probably get stronger. There is a paradox. Inasmuch as the election gives greater legitimacy to the next Iraqi government, since it will have been elected by Iraqis rather than appointed by Americans, it also subtracts from the right of foreign troops to remain in Iraq.

The two issues are not in direct inverse proportion to each other, but there can be less justification for such a pervasive presence of foreign troops in a country that has voted to put its own people in charge of government. The pressure is now on the Americans to speed up the training of Iraqi forces and start the process of handing security responsibilities over to them under a clear and public timetable.

Jonathan Steele

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