chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
April 01, 2005

What Iraq's Elections Teach Us About Democracy Building

by Richard W. Soudriette

On January 30, 2005, the people of Iraq stunned the world by turning out in massive numbers to vote for Iraq’s Transitional National Assembly. At great personal risk, they made a dignified statement to the world about voting as a human right. For one day, the sound of ballots dropping into Iraqi ballot boxes drowned out the sound of roadside bombs.

The United States provided critical support for this election, as it has for others around the world for the past twenty-five years. Former Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton all championed the promotion of democracy as a fundamental principle of U.S. foreign policy. In President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, he recommitted the United States to promoting democracy, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny.

The Iraqi elections reenforced the vital role that America has played in helping people to turn away from dictatorship and toward democracy in countries such as the Philippines, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and, most recently, the Ukraine. America has provided essential funding for elections and for associated democratic practices—such as political party development, rule of law, civil society, and governance—through the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Develop-ment, and the U.S. Department of State. Its efforts in democracy promotion have been implemented largely by nongovernmental organizations, including the American Bar Association; IFES, formerly known as the International Foundation for Election Systems; the International Republican Institute; and the National Democratic Institute.

That electoral democracies have expanded from thirty-nine in 1974 to 120 in 2004, according to the Freedom House “Democracy’s Century” survey, is due in no small measure to this U.S. leadership. Electoral democracies now represent 120 of 192 existing countries and are home to 62.5 percent of the world’s population. The United States has been successful in involving other countries through bilateral development agencies from such countries as Britain and Canada. It has also successfully placed democratic development on the agenda of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the InterAmerican Development Bank. Even the United Nations (UN) has become involved in providing financial and technical assistance in organizing elections in countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti, Iraq, Namibia, and South Africa.

As we look to the future and face the challenge of promoting democracy in areas such as the Middle East, it is imperative to take stock of the lessons learned in Iraq and apply these to future efforts in promoting democracy.

The Iraq Example

While the world community disagreed about using force to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, no one doubts that he was an evil dictator who brutalized his people. With memories of the millions who perished under him, Iraqis braved bombs to vote in large numbers, sending a clear message that they support democracy. They taught the world the vital importance of hope for a more peaceful and democratic future where all citizens will have a say.

The Iraqi elections reinforce an important caveat that IFES has embraced in elections in over 100 countries: there is no single blueprint for democracy. For democracy to take root, it must be “home grown” and not imposed from outside. It requires a multilateral approach. The recent elections in Iraq were successfully carried out because they were organized by Iraqis. This electoral event was different from those that occurred in such places as Cambodia, East Timor, and Namibia, because it was primarily financed and organized by Iraqis. The international assistance merely helped Iraqis to develop their own institutions to implement the electoral process.

These elections took place as a result of the hard work, determination, and courage of the Independent Election Commission of Iraq and the people of Iraq. However, they were also made possible by the crucial technical and financial support that was provided by the UN and the IFES team, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Planning for the Elections

Planning for the elections began during the fall of 2003, when IFES sent a team to conduct a preelection assessment. This team was led by Jeff Fischer, who had previously directed election efforts in Bosnia, East Timor, and Kosovo. One of the team’s most important early recommendations was to use the Hussein-era food ration card database as a starting point. Also known as the public distribution system, this database was the most comprehensive in the country and contained the names of virtually every Iraqi. This recommendation was ultimately accepted and formed the basis of the voter registration system. During the actual registration period, the food ration distribution centers were used as venues for voter registration.

In late 2003 IFES presented an assessment report and an election organization plan to officials of the Iraqi Governing Council and to the Coalition Provisional Authority. This report was shared with the UN. One of the recommendations was that, for the elections to be perceived as credible, Iraqis had to play the lead role in organizing them. IFES joined with the UN in recommending that the elections be organized by an independent electoral commission composed of Iraqi citizens. Without doubt, international assistance was still an important part of the equation. However, security concerns and the political reality in Iraq demanded a more domestic approach.

On March 1, 2004, the Iraqi Governing Council announced that it had completed and approved the Transitional Administrative Law. This was an interim constitution to govern Iraq following the restoration of sovereignty and was slated originally to last until June 30, 2004, until a permanent constitution could be adopted. In early 2004, the Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Sistani insisted that the UN reengage and help to organize elections before the handoff of sovereignty. Within the same time frame, the UN sent an assessment mission by Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, which ultimately issued a report stating that it was impossible to organize credible elections in such a short time frame. The UN argued that it would only be possible to organize elections by the beginning of 2005.

During this time, IFES continued to work closely on the ground with the UN, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Iraqi Governing Council, keeping the preparations for the elections moving forward. Following the approval of UN Security Council Resolution 1546 establishing the UN mission in Iraq, the UN quickly reengaged with a primary mandate to help the Iraqis set up and build the capacity of the Independent Election Commission of Iraq to run elections. IFES worked with the UN throughout the spring of 2004 and played a key role in drafting the rules and procedures that led to the establishment of that commission in May 2004.

Under the leadership of Dr. H. Abdul Aziz Hindawi, a nine-member Election Commission was established, consisting of seven voting members and two nonvoting members (the chief electoral officer and an international member). The commission was given the mandate to organize the election for the Transitional National Assembly before January 31, 2005. It was also charged with organizing elections for eighteen governorate councils and a Kurdistan National Assembly.

After an active vetting process in which 1,800 Iraqis bravely stepped forward and applied against a backdrop of escalating violence, the commission was selected, with the UN making the final recommendations. The selected commissioners then were taken to Mexico for a three-week training course on electoral administration. After this, the commission set about the task of recruiting more than 100,000 Iraqis to serve as election officials across the twenty-one governorates of Iraq. They were assisted by the International Election Assistance Team, comprised of forty-two international advisors, including the team from IFES. While the international community provided financial resources for some equipment and materials, the elections were essentially financed by the Iraqis themselves.

Iraqi Resolve and the Elections

When Prime Minister Allawi took over as head of the interim Iraqi Government on July 1, 2004, he quickly moved to embrace the electoral process and consistently sent a strong message that the elections would take place on schedule. Insur-gent forces did everything possible to disrupt the process and intimidate everyone involved. Thirteen Iraqi employees of the Election Commis-sion were killed.

In the end, a total of 6,000 candidates filed to run for office. Many actively campaigned despite threats of violence and death by the insurgents. A total of 223 political party entries and thirty-four coalitions were certified by the commission.

The Election Commission also permitted Iraqis who were living abroad to vote. IFES worked together with the International Organization for Migration to implement the out-of-country voting for Iraqis in fourteen countries. Some 250,000 Iraqis voted during January 28–30. The images on Iraqi television of so many of Iraqi expatriates turning out to vote helped embolden the in-country voters and contributed to their high turnout on January 30.

The Iraqi Police and National Guard did a fantastic job in helping to secure the polling stations in most of the country. Sadly, areas in at least three governorates were so bad from a security standpoint that it was virtually impossible to organize polling stations there. Also, while participation by the Sunni population turned out to be more than expected, it was nonetheless very low.

Despite these negatives, the Iraqi elections gave new life to efforts to build a new democratic future for Iraq. A tremendous amount of work remains to be done. The Transitional National Assembly is now selecting the prime minister, president, and speaker of the assembly. Much effort is being made to reach out and include all communities in Iraq. Two more elections will take place this year: a vote on a draft constitution in October and another for the new permanent Iraqi government in December. So far, substantial progress has been made, mostly due to the stellar organization of the electoral process and the resolve of the people.

As Iraqis embarked on the difficult road of building a new democratic Iraq, they have already helped to inspire others. Along with the Palestinians, who also conducted democratic elections in January, they have helped to spark democratic stirrings that are now taking place in Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

To build upon its legacy of the past twenty-five years, the United States must continue its leadership in promoting democracy in the Middle East and throughout every corner of the globe. At the same time, it must enlist other countries and work through multilateral institutions such as the UN. The image of Iraqis bravely voting on January 30 inspires us all to work for the day when democracy spreads to every country.

Richard W. Soudriette

Richard W. Soudriette is the founding president of IFES, which was established as the International Federation of Election Systems, in 1987. IFES is an international nonprofit organization that supports the building of democratic societies through assistance in elections, rule of law, civil society, and governance.