Some time during the theatrics of last week's State of the Union Address, amid brandished purple fingers, the embrace between an Iraqi and an American soldier's mother, boos from the Democrats, and Dick Cheney fidgeting over Bush's shoulder, I started thinking about perception, progress, and how we measure the success of a democracy. If the last couple of decades have taught us anything, it's that elections can have more symbolic importance than practical implication, that they can signal the beginning of profoundly unfree moments in history, and that they don't prove anything.
I understand that we can be allow ourselves to be impressed that so many Iraqis readied themselves in houses with no electricity and intermittent water supply, braved the threat of fatal violence, and went out to vote. But we must also bear in mind that violence gravely hindered campaigning and made it impossible for international election monitors to be present. I fear that overwhelming media skepticism in the runup to the election has just led to an overcorrection, and an unwarranted jubilation now. It seems to me that if Iraqi people would come out to vote now, they would have done it last month, last year, the year before that as well.
So what are we really celebrating - that the elections took place at all, and that people showed up to vote? Why is this any surprise? Organizing an election is difficult work, but it seems to be the easiest step in the process of democratization. The country's most powerful religious leader supports popular elections, but he might as easily have issued a fatwa that people should not vote in these elections. Early news reports noted that there was only a 10% voter turnout in Mosul - is this a thrilling turnout? People who have lived under an oppressive regime might turn out to vote, but that doesn't mean that democracy has been achieved and we can dub the mission successful. Let us remember that Milosevic was freely elected.
As in Afghanistan, elections may legitimize the Iraqi government and allow it to make mandated steps towards economic and physical rehabilitation of the country. Or, it may turn out that the new government will continue to struggle with the remains of war. We must be careful not to see the elections as the successful culmination of a carefully planned democratization process. The road to war and then to recovery has been long, fraught with mishaps and miscalculations, and incredibly difficult on Iraqi civilians. The elections may be a starting point for them to reclaim their country, but this war, the decade of sanctions, and the long years of oppression have left them a ravaged country to reclaim.
As many a scholar and expert have pointed out, democracy cannot really flourish in the absence of economic development. India and Indonesia are examples of thriving vibrant democracies struggling under the burden of poverty, corruption, and illiteracy. Is it really such a triumph to have corrupt elected leaders?
I think it's time for us to examine what we understand under successful democracy. Elections are very important, but voting is the most passive and indirect form of civic political engagement. This applies here, too. Our own secular democracy is experiencing crippling partisanship, and the increased infusion of religious ideology into statecraft. We have our own divides to overcome, and a higher voter participation in national elections have not seemed to help us overcome them.