The Iraqi election of a 275-member National Assembly was neither a bloodbath nor a farce: It was widely participated in and is about as legitimate an election as one can expect in a country that was, until recently, a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. The turnout, which was expected by many pessimists to come in under 30 percent, was ultimately comparable to the turnout in our most recent election. That so many of these recently suppressed citizens flocked to the polls with such enthusiasm is a powerful reminder of the value of the elective franchise.
However, though the election did not fall prey to forecasts of doom, there are certainly issues that must be addressed. The troublingly low turnout of Sunni voters, estimated to be as little as 20 percent of those eligible, stands out as a main blemish on an otherwise admirable effort on the part of the Iraqi government and the United States armed forces. It is not yet known with any certainty exactly why Sunni turnout was so low; while many voters might have stayed away in protest, it seems likely that were kept away because of poll closings, inadequate ballots and terrorist threats. According to one account cited in Reuters, “many Iraqis arrived late to find ballot sheets had run out, possibly skewing results for the already disgruntled minority.” Thus, any hasty inferences to the main cause of low Sunni turnout seem unwise.
As it stands, the only certainty is that the low Sunni turnout is not necessarily indicative of their unwillingness to cooperate in a democratic system. While some Sunni groups have voiced adamant resistance to representation within the new democratic government, there are no clear signs that the group as a whole rejects the idea of working with the Shiite majority or with the Kurds. What is known to all observers is simply that it is of the utmost importance that Sunnis are included in any new government that wants to have a chance of success. Gross under representation within the new parliament would further alienate the Sunni population and would likely contribute to the threat of civil war. For that reason, they must be encouraged or cajoled to participate.
The election is most assuredly not the end of our obligations in Iraq, and the administration should avoid the tempting opportunity to quickly declare “victory” and move on—something the president has had a penchant for in the past. At times like this, the inevitable call for significant troop withdrawals is heard, yet this would be precisely the wrong move. We are starting to make headway in the daunting task of establishing a functional democracy; what Iraq most needs now is increased stability so that the Iraqi people witness the real and definite benefits of democracy come to fruition. Much remains to be done in building a functioning democratic state, and overly self-confident assurances that Iraq is stable are a recipe for disaster.
Thus, U.S. troops should remain at their present numbers, and will likely have to for a considerable amount of time. To lower their levels at the present time, or in the immediate future, would send precisely the signal that we do not want to send: that we recognize Iraq as something to be abandoned as quickly and as easily as possible. As we have previously expressed on this page, while we strongly disagreed with the initial decision to invade Iraq, the facts of our current engagement necessitate that we be successful. Too many important things—namely the credibility of the United States and the stability of the Middle East—are at risk of suffering irrevocable damage to take the easy way out.
The election raises as many questions as it answers. What will be the precise makeup of the governing coalition? Will the government be primarily religious or secular? Will the new government, which will be charged with drafting a new constitution and with appointing a prime minister, be friendly to the U.S.? Will the new Iraqi democracy be unduly influenced by its authoritarian neighbors, including Iran? These and many other questions will have to be answered by the administration before it can declare that its experiment in enforced democratic transformation is a success.
While we earnestly hope that the new Iraqi government will be secular, pluralistic and tolerant, and will foster friendly relations with the U.S., a great deal of planning and hard work will need to be done in order to ensure this. Given the current administration’s track record thus far on long-term planning, the future of Iraq’s fledgling democracy is anything but certain. The election is a decided bright spot in our dealings with Iraq, but a difficult and dangerous road ahead remains.