Iraqi Elections: Time for Flexibility

Up until now, President Bush has been right to insist elections in Iraq will be held on schedule Jan. 30. To show weakness on this would have angered Shi’ites and Kurds, who want their country back after decades of Sunni oppression. It would also have convinced Sunni Arabs not to bother preparing for elections that probably wouldn’t happen on schedule anyway. It would have given up too soon, for no real benefit.

But it’s time for flexibility. The strategy of having elections Jan. 30 probably will not work well because Sunni Arab turnout seems likely to be very low. Many Sunni politicians have bowed out. And public opinion polls show markedly less Sunni enthusiasm than among Iraq’s other major ethnic and religious groups. Very little turnout is likely.

Given the voting system Iraq is to use in January, which does not include regional representation as in the U.S. Congress, very few Sunni Arab politicians would get elected.

The likely result is more anger among Sunnis, greater estrangement from the rest of the Iraqi population and greater sympathy and support for an insurgency that remains Sunni-dominated. Everyone will suffer, not just the Sunnis.

Therefore, an increasing number of top Sunni political figures, including some who are very moderate and pro-American (such as former Interim President Pachachi) have decided there is no choice: The elections should be postponed. They are right.

Some say showing flexibility now will embolden insurgents and increase their attacks. But if handled right, a postponement need not convey weakness or lack of resolve.

Moreover, there is little evidence that insurgents time their violence by a political calendar. Trends since April 2003 tend to show a gradual growth in the insurgency and in casualty rates among Iraqis and Americans—not spikes linked to major political events. The insurgents attack as much as they can at any given moment; it is, more or less, just that simple.

Thus our goal must be not to affect their psychology but to defeat them and to reduce their ability to recruit and gain other support from the Iraqi people. The election date is largely irrelevant to the first goal. And a later date would probably help us achieve the second.

Under these circumstances, a one-time delay in Iraqi elections makes sense. But it must be handled correctly to retain Shi’ite and Kurdish support and the Iraqi people’s confidence in general. Specifically:

  • Postponement should be announced by Iraqis, starting with the Shi’ite prime minister and Sunni Arab president, as well as other politicians from the government and from various opposition movements. Americans need to take a back seat.
  • The postponement should be for a specific, limited period—perhaps three months—long enough to permit a vigorous political campaign, but not enough to cause concern that democracy in Iraq has been fundamentally set back.
  • Any postponement should be accompanied by a pledge from as many major Sunni political figures as possible to use the time granted to campaign seriously for office. They should publicly accept the new date as fixed, promise not to boycott the elections and encourage fellow Sunnis to vote.
  • We will be unable to defeat the insurgency in a few more months, or even ensure completely safe voting. Postponement should not be explained on such security grounds.
  • Rather, with the support of the United States and other countries, Prime Minister Allawi and other Iraqi leaders should say elections are being postponed explicitly as a good-faith gesture to allow Sunnis a full role in the political process. That is the real goal, and we should say so.

But at the same time, it must be clear this is a one-time change. Even if one delay would be unlikely to convey weakness, multiple delays could. The accelerated timetable for giving Iraqis back their country in full this year is basically sound and indeed necessary.

But there is some tactical flexibility on exactly how this is done. And the time to employ that flexibility is now.