Marina Ottaway assesses the significance of the January 30 elections for the longer term process of building a democratic Iraqi state.

The elections taking place today in Iraq are a turning point for the country, but not a democratic turning point. An election, particularly one marred by such an unprecedented level of violence and fear, does not turn a country into a democracy. But no matter how flawed, the voting will force the various ethnic, religious and political groups in Iraq to confront each other and decide whether they can stay together in one country.

Iraqis have never confronted such a decision before. They were arbitrarily put into one country by Britain after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. They were then forced to stay together by a succession of centralized, authoritarian regimes, culminating in the rule of Saddam Hussein. For the last two years, they have been kept together by the U.S. occupation forces. Now they will have to find out whether they can stay together voluntarily.

The National Assembly being elected today will write the constitution that will make or break the country. If the constitution contains mechanisms to satisfy the major demands of all groups and reassure them that there is a place for them in the new Iraq, the country may survive, settle down and possibly even become democratic at some point. But finding such mechanisms will be extremely difficult.

Shias, who constitute the majority of the population, are likely to emerge from the elections with more than their fair share of seats in the assembly and will be tempted to wield their new-found power. Sunnis, already uncertain about their place in the future Iraq after the disbanding of Saddam Hussein's army and the de-baathification process imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, will certainly be underrepresented, resentful and fearful. Kurds, used to virtual independence during the last 10 years of Saddam's rule, will be determined to maintain a very high degree of autonomy, and will be ready to secede if they do not get it.

And no matter what constitution is enacted, the insurgents will continue their efforts to disrupt the country, adding to the difficulty of making the new Iraq work for all its citizens.

There has been virtually no discussion of what kind of political system might reconcile the interests of all Iraqi groups so far. The country's interim constitution, drafted by experts rather than negotiated among Iraqi political forces, simply ignored the problem. It provided protection for the rights of individuals, but it did not make any concession to the fact that in Iraq individuals define themselves as part of a group. Other opportunities to initiate a serious discussion earlier were either missed or rejected.

Compare Iraq to Afghanistan. Before holding their first elections in late 2004, Afghan political groups had been through three years of consultations and discussions. Throughout, there were many problems, but the various ethnic groups and political factions were forced to work with each other and make difficult compromises.

But Iraqis are going into the elections without having engaged in a serious political process. They never held a broad-based meeting. They never bargained – except within the narrow confines of the Governing Council and now the interim government. Under the U.S. occupation, politics was mostly a process of consultation between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the handful of politicians, many of them former exiles, in the Iraqi Governing Council.

All the difficult work lies ahead. The aftermath of an election is not a particularly good time to start a serious process of dialogue and reconciliation. Elections create winners and losers, and winners are usually more inclined to take advantage of their power than to accommodate the demands of the losers. Yet, this is what has to happen in Iraq in order for a constitution to be written that will keep the country together.

There are many obstacles to success. One is that the transitional assembly is expected to approve a constitution by August. The deadline does not allow adequate time for real negotiations on the many difficult issues that divide Iraqis. Fortunately, the new National Assembly has the power to change this deadline and it should. With the survival of the Iraqi state at stake, it would be a serious mistake to put respect for a schedule ahead of the outcome.

While difficult, negotiations on a new constitution could be successful. But the constitution would have to recognize the diversity of the Iraqi population and include provisions that reassure all groups about their future. The Kurds will only be convinced that Iraq safeguards their interests if they are provided with a high degree of self-government in their region. Decentralization is alien to the political experience of Arab countries, but it has precedents in many countries. Spain, for example, adopted a constitutional model including regional autonomy in an attempt to satisfy Basque separatists. Decentralization and regional autonomy, however, may be seen by the Shia parties that are likely to dominate the National Assembly as a reduction of their power, so an undermining of their election victory.

The problems and concerns of the Sunnis are unfortunately much more difficult to address. Although about as numerous as the Kurds, the Sunnis are not as concentrated in an area with relatively clear boundaries. A large number live in or around Baghdad, a city that, by virtue of being the capital, is quite heterogeneous. Carving out an autonomous geographical area would be much more difficult for Sunnis than for Kurds. Accommodating Sunni fears of becoming pariahs would probably require not regional autonomy, but some form of guaranteed representation in the government. In other words, it might require a solution similar not to Spain's but to Lebanon's, which reserves specific positions in the government for representatives of different ethnic groups. Again, after winning an election Shias would have to share their new power with a group whose domination they have long resented. Thus, much rides on the statesmanship of the yet untried Shia leadership.

When the election results are announced some days from now, Iraq will not be a democratic country. It will not be a peaceful country, because the insurgents will certainly continue their campaign of violence. It will not be a beacon of hope for the Arab world. But Iraqis may at long last have a chance to start talking to each other and to find out whether they can and want to live with each other when they are no longer forced to do so by a domestic dictator or a foreign occupier. And the U.S. government would be well advised to let the Iraqis find their own solution.

Ottaway is a senior associate in democracy and rule of law at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.