Why direct elections in Iraq could backfire

The newly arrived UN team will explore whether June elections could create instability or favor radical sectors.

Elections are a hallmark of democracy, so electing an Iraqi government to assume authority from the United States by June 30 - as the country's Shiite majority is demanding - might seem the way to go.

But elections, especially when held too soon in a political transition, can lead to instability and even warfare if minorities are kept out or weaker political groups don't have time to organize, electoral experts say. They can also favor the more radical elements in a society.

These are the kinds of pitfalls and historical lessons that the United Nations will have to consider as Secretary-General Kofi Annan sends a team of experts to Iraq to gauge the country's readiness for elections. The experts have begun meeting with Iraqi officials and are expected to report back to Mr. Annan before the end of the month.

After holding the UN at arm's length through the Iraq war and the initial postwar phase, the US is now embracing the UN and giving it broad authority in Iraq as a means of salvaging the planned June 30 turnover of sovereignty to the Iraqis.

Annan met with President Bush last week to discuss the UN's role in breaking the stalemate over how to form a provisional government. He said he sees the UN's return to Iraq as "a chance to help break the impasse that exists at the moment" and help the country "move forward." But the probable result of the UN's new role in Iraq, officials and experts say, is major changes in the US plan for handing authority to Iraq - a plan that has already been repeatedly altered.

Countdown to June 30

As the UN undertaking begins, a key question is whether the few months before the planned June 30 turnover of sovereignty offers enough time to organize elections. Already some experienced officials are warning that hasty or poorly planned elections can be worse for a country's long-term prospects than seemingly less democratic alternatives.

"You have to make sure elections come in the right sequence" of a country's transitional process or they can cause as many problems as they solve, says Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat who is leading the UN team.

Mr. Brahimi, who has won high praise for his role as Annan's special envoy to Afghanistan, said in Washington recently that he insisted that elections not be held in Afghanistan until certain criteria are met - including better security, disarmament of armed groups, and better political organization of the country's minority groups. While acknowledging that the situations of the two countries are "fundamentally different," Brahimi says elections can be "divisive" in any country that is not ready to "take the heated debates."

As for Iraq, the US plan has run into opposition from the country's most respected religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been joined by many of Iraq's eminent Shiite clerics in favoring direct elections. Elections would presumably favor Iraq's Shiite majority.

But the US has insisted there is not sufficient time to organize credible elections - and international elections experts generally confirm that elections can present their own set of problems.

"In a divided country coming out of war, elections are often seen by some groups as a way to confirm power," says Marina Ottaway, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

In those conditions, precipitous elections can lead to deep divisions or even war - as happened in Angola in 1992, when the losers didn't accept the results.

Skewed outcomes?

Another problem with elections in transitional countries is that they can tend to favor the more radical elements in a society. "The truth is that democrats are not usually good organizers," Ms. Ottaway says. She points to the first elections in several countries of Eastern Europe after the breakup of the Soviet Union, elections that favored former communist parties.

In Algeria in 1992, Islamists won legislative elections over a bevy of poorly organized democratic political parties - until the military nullified the elections, plunging the country into a long and extremely violent civil conflict.

"Elections require some consensus about the rules of the game," says Ottaway. "They only work if the parties that lose are willing to accept defeat."

Some US officials fear results of elections for other reasons. A Shiite government might seek to restrict or reduce the US military presence in the country, for example. That possibility is one reason some administration officials are arguing against turning over control of Iraq's political transition to the UN.

Despite these concerns however, the fact remains that elections do convey a sense of legitimacy to political transitions. Given this, Ottaway and other elections experts say the UN could consider several alternatives to full elections.

One option would be what electoral experts call "transitional elections," which have lower standards of eligibility and registration. For example, the US has said there is no time to conduct a census that would serve as a basis for electoral rolls. But elections that are serving to form a provisional government can be held successfully with less-formal standards, experts say. Iraq specialists note that all Iraqis have a ration card from the days of the UN Oil for Food Program that could be used in the absence of a census.

South Africa, for one, held its first post-apartheid elections using national identity cards.

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