The invite list for Biden’s democracy summit

Just before the summit in December, Iraq holds an election with many reforms that will help define which nations are worth calling democracies.

A man in a wheelchair drives near a poster of Haider al-Jabbouri, a parliamentary elections candidate who is also disabled, in Kerbala, Iraq, Sept. 1.

In less than three months, President Joe Biden plans to hold the Summit for Democracy. It will be a virtual gathering of leaders from what the White House calls “a diverse group” of the world’s democracies. The event itself is highly anticipated. It may help protect democracies from a trend toward authoritarian rule. Yet just as anticipated is the invitation list. Who decides whether a country has a democracy?

The question is crucial because Mr. Biden expects to hold a second, in-person summit in a year  that could create an alliance of democracies, not merely a meeting for democracy. For the summit on Dec. 9-10, meanwhile, the White House will only say it is inviting “established and emerging” democracies.

A good example of the dilemma is one of the world’s youngest democracies, Iraq.

Its last election in 2018 had a record low voter turnout, 13 years after the United States created a democracy following the military ouster of a dictator. And the voting was so rigged and fraudulent that it helped spark mass protests in 2019, forcing a prime minister to resign. A new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, promised to fulfill the protesters’ demand for an early election that would be fair and transparent. The vote for a new parliament will be held Oct. 10, a year in advance, and could determine if Iraq is invited to the democracy summit.

“The credibility of the [election] process will prove essential for Iraq’s future,” says U.N. Iraq Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

Mr. Kadhimi, a reformist tied to no political party, is so keen for a clean election that he has invited hundreds of international experts to monitor the polls. To protect the foreign observers, he is deploying Iraq’s special forces to guard voting areas from any attacks by Iran-backed militias that might try to disrupt the voting.

Other electoral reforms make up quite an impressive list. Under pressure from protesters, the current parliament decreased the power of political parties, many of which have bribed voters to cast ballots for specific candidates. Mr. Kadhimi also set up a special anti-corruption group to thwart anyone planning to rig the voting. One cell of conspirators has already been caught. And he has tried to ensure the independence of the electoral commission.

In addition, cellphones and cameras are banned inside voting booths. Electronic voting cards will be disabled for 72 hours after a voter casts a ballot. Voters who are hard of hearing will be given a sign language interpreter. Ballots will be counted locally, not at a central headquarters. And an independent audit firm will check on how votes are counted.

“I call on all candidates and political parties to fully commit to healthy competition,” says Mr. Kadhimi.

Every democracy continually strives for the best way to ensure free and fair elections (even in the U.S.). For Iraq, it is still not known if young people will ignore a call by the protest organizers to boycott the election. Many are upset that the prime minister has done little to prosecute Iran-aligned gunmen who have killed pro-democracy activists.

As an “emerging” democracy, Iraq is slowly learning how to conduct elections with integrity. This one will probably be far better than the last, say U.N. experts. On aspirations alone, young Iraqis clearly embrace democratic values, such as equality and openness. Iraq could easily earn an invite to Mr. Biden’s summit.

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