Iraq vote unlikely to bring change

October 14, 2005|By MARK CLARENCE WALKER

WASHINGTON -- Referendums do not resolve underlying conflicts and tensions. That is the essential problem with tomorrow's Iraqi referendum on a new constitution.

Referendums work well in providing popular legitimacy - the coin of the realm in a democratic process - but they cannot make people get along or establish a democratic state, like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. And in the face of substantial disagreements over how power is distributed within a state, the warm glow that referendums engender from the legitimacy they bestow often fades back into the black of dissenting opinions at best and violence at worst.

This has always been so. Democracy in general does not work well in polities inflicted with significant conflict between competing factions, especially when these factions are fighting over who and what institutions will control various reins of power. These basic disagreements must be resolved first.

Consider Russia during the last years of communism and the first years of its democracy - from Mikhail S. Gorbachev's referendum on his union treaty to Boris N. Yeltsin's referendums in 1993. None of those votes resolved the underlying tension between competing interests in Russia; those disputes simply culminated in the August 1991 coup attempt and the shelling of the Russian parliament building in October 1993.

Another, more recent example is that of East Timor after the "successful" U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1999 on independence from Indonesia that resulted in thousands of killings by pro-Indonesian death squads that sought out all those in communities who dared to vote.

And the referendum is a particularly clumsy instrument of direct democracy. The simple up-or-down vote fails to allow for complexities. The wording of a question can be manipulated before a vote and interpreted in different ways by different interests afterward.

Note the dispute over who the voters are defined as in this Iraqi poll: Are they simply those who are registered and who show up to vote, or do they include all registered voters regardless of whether they vote? According to Iraqi election law, this simple yet arguable distinction has the effect of either making it easier or harder for Iraqi citizens - in this case, more than likely the minority Sunnis - to reject the referendum if two-thirds of voters in just three provinces say "no."

Moreover, it is troubling to see that the Bush administration believes that it is necessary to conduct significant military operations right before the vote in order to hold down insurgent activity. Those that are the target of America's military might are not going anywhere.

Once the referendum has been held, and its results announced, interests on both sides of the divide will resurface and they will pay little attention to the vote that was just held. They will simply continue their dispute by other, and more likely violent, means.

It is therefore distressing that the Bush administration has fallen back upon demonstrably democratic instruments such as the referendum that have proved to be less than effective in similar circumstances.

Referendum votes do put on a good show of democracy. But, like Potemkin villages of old, their deficiencies far outweigh the veneer of legitimacy that they sometimes bestow in high-conflict situations. If a majority of Iraqi citizens votes in favor of the constitution, the Bush administration will be able to claim victory even though the underlying conflict will rage on.

Mark Clarence Walker, an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, is the author of The Strategic Use of Referendums: Power, Legitimacy and Democracy.

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