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Iraq's democracy

By The San Diego Union-Tribune

Copley News Service


Iraq now confronts its first big obstacle on the rock-strewn path to democracy: whether to hold national elections in accordance with its new constitution, or delay the balloting in the face of insurgent violence.

The prospects for the rule of law in a democratic, pluralistic Iraq will be severely diminished if the elections are postponed at the point of a gun. Yet that is precisely what a collection of Sunni and Kurdish political parties are advocating.

They contend that bloodshed fomented by the anti-democratic insurgency in the Sunni Triangle surrounding Baghdad will depress voter turnout if the election is held on Jan. 30, as ordered by the independent Electoral Commission. The groups are seeking a six-month suspension of the balloting, even though Iraq's interim constitution requires that the election be held no later than the end of January.

There is, however, much more to this story than security concerns, legitimate though they may be. Sunnis and Kurds are both minorities and stand to lose influence and power to the majority Shiites in free elections. Shiites comprise about 60 percent of population, compared to about 20 percent each for the Sunnis in central Iraq and the Kurds in the north. Throughout modern history, culminating with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni minority has exercised suzerainty over Iraq.

Iraqis who are sincerely worried about the insurgency's potential impact on voter participation need look no further than Afghanistan. In their first post-Taliban elections, held on Oct. 9, Afghans braved insurgent violence and jammed polling places in huge numbers to exercise their new democratic rights. There is no reason to believe Iraqis would be any less courageous. Conversely, putting off the elections would be a tremendous victory for the insurgents. Their principal aim, after all, is to derail the fledgling democratic process and restore the authoritarian Baathist rule that was toppled by coalition forces in the spring of 2003. A delay of six months would not result in a safer election. Quite the contrary, it merely would embolden the insurgents to step up their campaign to quash Iraq's emerging democracy through violence.

Under the interim constitution, Iraqis are preparing to elect members of a 275-seat national assembly, which will choose a prime minister to succeed Ayad Allawi, the current, temporary head of government. In addition, the assembly will draft a permanent constitution, which will provide for another round of popular elections later next year to select a full-term government. Added to these elections are two other planned rounds of balloting in 2005, one to choose the leaders of Iraq's 18 provinces and the other to elect a Kurdistan assembly in the semi-autonomous north. Democratic aspirations are never advanced by calling off elections. Iraq should honor its own interim constitution and go to the polls on Jan. 30.

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