Dangerous Stalemate in Iraq

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By Donald L. Horowitz

Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2006; Page A18

There are two crises in Iraq. One is the obvious crisis of sectarian violence, the other, the less obvious one of government formation. The two are related. The elections in December produced a more or less predictable result — four major blocs of seats, Shiite parties in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) received 128 seats out of 275, short of a majority to form a government. The principal Kurdish list came in second with 53; the main Sunni parties gained 44 and the intersectarian list of Ayad Allawi won only 25. Together the Shiite UIA and the Kurds would easily have a secure majority; and if they accommodated Sunni demands for constitutional changes, Sunni parties could join a government that spanned the major cleavages and undercut the insurgency.

Something peculiar happened on the way to such a happy outcome. The Shiites and Kurds, who had so completely dominated politics and constitution-making in post-invasion Iraq, fell out. By an intraparty majority of one vote, the Shiites chose as their candidate for prime minister the sitting occupant of that office, Ibrahim al-Jaafari — the one man Kurdish president Jalal Talabani could not abide. For their part, the Kurds, who had profited handsomely from their close relationship with the Shiites, turned their back on that relationship and demanded a national unity government, including not only the Sunnis but Mr. Allawi’s secular party, too. Moreover, they demanded that the interior and defense ministries, implicated in sectarian violence, be assigned to neutral figures and that a new “national security council” be created to check in some unspecified way the formal institutions created by the constitution. The Kurds and all their allies have 136 seats, short of a majority, just as the Shiites are. And so there is a stalemate.

That stalemate feeds the insurgency, not only by freeing up politically affiliated militias to attack their sectarian enemies, but by creating an interregnum whose uncertainty is an ideal environment for intergroup violence. Reciprocally, the violence creates bitterness that makes it harder for political leaders to span the chasm that divides them. For the moment, even the deep disenchantment of Sunni leaders with the constitution has been shelved as the raw struggle over who will control Iraq takes center stage.

Why the Kurds defected from an alliance that had served them so well is a mystery. After all, the constitution they crafted with the Shiites suits their interest in going their own way with a Kurdish region in the north. What is very clear is that the alignment of nearly all Shiites on one side and nearly everyone else on the other is exceedingly unhealthy. The Shiites are a majority in a country long deprived of majoritarian institutions. Majorities want majority rule; a majority that sees itself as cheated of its rightful place in government is a dangerous organism.

Consider a single, obscure but important instance: the Punjab election of 1946 in British India. The Punjab was then divided among a Muslim majority, a Hindu minority and Sikh minority. The Muslim League was overwhelmingly favored by Muslims but fell just short of a majority. A small Muslim splinter party joined Hindu and Sikh politicians, enabling them to form a government and cheating the vast majority of Muslims out of a government they saw as rightfully theirs. The result: horrendous violence that opened the door to the partition of India, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. There are examples of the phenomenon in other countries where majorities are shut out.

The same could easily happen in Iraq if an anti-UIA alignment secures enough seats to form a government. Some think a civil war is already under way, but an inclusive government stands at least some chance of averting the worst. It will not be easy to negotiate such a government. A coalition would be easier to form if the UIA abandoned its insistence on Mr. Jaafari as its prime ministerial choice and thought seriously about the negative effects of biased interior and defense ministries. Many informed Iraqis think Mr. Jaafari has been ineffective.

The UIA could also rethink its insistence on a less-than-fully inclusive government. It is true that ministerial positions and other perquisites of governing normally go to the best electoral performers. But these are not normal times in which a winner-take-all mentality should prevail: It is imperative that everyone who can dampen the violence find a place in government. That will also mean Shiite compromises on the constitution so disliked by Sunni, even if those negotiations take place over a more extended period than the four months contemplated for amendments to the current constitutional deal.

On the Kurdish-Sunni-secular side, it needs to be recognized that denying the Shiites plurality of a first-among-equals position in government is a very bad idea. It is not only of dubious democratic legitimacy: More importantly, an anti-UIA coalition risks explosive violence that will put Iraq on the road to disaster — to years of strife, or secession and territorial partition, or even to internationalized Sunni-Shiite warfare that can embroil the whole region. Responsible people on both sides of this new divide have to step back from their maximum demands, lest pursuing them place every party and group in dire jeopardy. Likewise, if the U.S. entertains any notion that supporting an anti-UIA coalition provides a convenient way to exclude Iranian influence from Iraq, attractive though that notion may be, the costs of indulging such an idea will be far too high to contemplate.

Finally, thought should be given to the proportional representation (PR) electoral system that, in combination with the Kurdish defection, produced the impasse. List-system PR is the preferred electoral system of many international advisers helping in the creation of transitional institutions. In Iraq’s first elections, it might have been hard, though not impossible, to choose another system; and other systems might also have produced inconclusive results in the recent elections. But some systems would have offered a chance of a more definitive electoral outcome, and might have been preferred. A protracted interregnum in which armed gangs go about their gory business while statesmanship is hiding should not be anyone’s idea of a reasonable transition to democracy.

Mr. Horowitz is professor of law and political Science at Duke University and author of "Ethnic Groups in Conflict" (California, 2000).
Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.