Still in flux

October 14, 2005

What happened earlier this week is a peculiar way to lay the foundations for a democracy, but it might be better than any alternative. Tomorrow, Iraqis are supposed to vote yes or no on a proposed new constitution - a document that would set the country on a disastrous course of ethnic and sectarian division. Even the Bush administration, which argues that approval would at least move the "process" forward, nevertheless recognized the draft document's serious shortcomings. So hard, last-minute bargaining led to the following twist:

The ruling Shiite and Kurdish parties now agree with one Sunni Arab group that the constitution can be rewritten later this year. This rather significant detail was read out to the National Assembly, and then declared to have been approved, without the Assembly actually taking a vote on the matter. Tomorrow, citizens will be asked to give a thumbs-up to a constitution that is heading right back to the drawing board.

This little maneuver accomplishes two things. It makes it less likely that the Sunni minority will vote no en masse, and thus less likely that the constitution can be defeated. Just as important, it removes the dreadful finality that would otherwise accompany a yes vote tomorrow. Only a few days ago, the referendum was threatening to close the door on any possible reconciliation with the resentful Sunni community; now, everyone understands that there is still room for more politics in the weeks and months to come. That is all to the good if it can drain some potential support, for the time being at least, from the growing insurgency.

It's a slender thread though. The constitution as currently written is still a blueprint for disaster. The Shiites and Kurds didn't agree to change it; they agreed to a mechanism for changing it. The Sunnis (who dominate the insurgency) make up about 20 percent of the population, and they will be hard-pressed to achieve any of the amendments they are seeking.

A point to keep in mind is that in countries without democratic traditions, constitutions do not emerge full-blown, nor are they treated reverently by citizens or government. Saddam Hussein's regime had a beautiful constitution, complete with protection for human rights; it just happened that no one took it seriously. So if Iraqis, as seems probable, approve their constitution tomorrow, the good news is that none of it is set in stone.

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