Each of Iraq's three elections in 2005 has been a landmark event: the first free and transparent election on January 30, the first referendum to approve a constitution on October 15, and now the first election to choose a permanent government on December 15. Iraq has acquired the trappings of democracy, including a parliament, elected government, free press, and the outlines of democratic institutions. It also has deep-seated sectarian and ethnic rivalries, unstable political alliances, closed-door deals, institutionalized corruption, and cronyism, which also sometimes occur in democracies.

Iraqis have high hopes that the constitution and relatively open elections will usher in a new age of peace, end the insurgencies, and provide greater security and an exit strategy for the occupiers. Under the current provisional government of President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari, the federal government has been at near total loggerheads, with no ability to restrain the greed of its ministers and no attempt to prevent politicization of all government offices and actions. But each faction has already articulated a set of non-negotiable demands regarding the new government to be created:

  • The Shiite community, representing approximately 55 to 60 percent of the population, demands majority rule and a ban on Baathists in government; some also favor creating an autonomous state from the nine provinces where they form the majority. To reach consensus on the adoption of the constitution, they agreed on a compromise that Islam would be a source of the law. They have allied themselves with the Kurdish factions on several parliamentary issues, but the Shiites are not a monolithic bloc, and those favoring secular government have joined new political parties.
  • Kurds have been particularly strident in declaring virtual autonomy for the three northern provinces where they form the majority. They are determined to retain a strong provincial authority and a weak central government, preserve their militias, and keep non-Kurdish military or security forces out of their territory. Defeated in their bid to insert a map of an expanded Kurdistan (including Kirkuk and the oilfields) in the referendum, they are proceeding with their plan of pushing Arabs out of the Kirkuk region and signing contracts to develop the northern oilfields. They prefer a secular Iraq with no ex-Baathists, but in reality care little what happens outside the territory they claim in the north. The Kurds, who are approximately 20 percent of the population but hold 35 percent of the seats in the interim parliament, are pushing hard to achieve their demands now, realizing they will be fewer in the new assembly.
  • The significant number of Sunni Arabs who registered for the parliamentary election, plus the change to elections by district, suggest Sunnis (20 percent of the Iraqi population) might hold as many seats as Kurds in the new assembly. Sunni Arabs want Iraq identified as an Arab and Islamic nation, with a strong military and a national government in control of all natural resources. They oppose creating “states” out of provinces, and want to ban all militias and end de-Baathification except for those accused of specific crimes. Some of these demands were incorporated in the Cairo meeting of Iraqi factions and the Arab League in Cairo in November, which could open the way to a conference for national reconciliation next spring.

Another critical task for the new government to be formed will be building stable and transparent governance based on merit and not on cronyism. No one expects Iraq to be perfect; but it would be desirable if corruption could be contained to avoid breaking the government, looting the treasury, or diverting oil revenues to private profit. This would require a stronger central government than the current constitution permits; independent watchdogs to monitor government agents and agencies; and an independent judiciary.

While the balance of forces in the new parliament is not yet certain, what is clear is that democracy in Iraq is a work in progress. Iraq's politics will be diverse, with religious and non-religious parties arguing for or against secular rule, and parties based on ethnic, tribal, or class distinctions. They will form alliances based on issues, and not always on ethnic or religious identity. A successful democratic process will not change the security situation in Iraq in the short term, but it may lead to the creation of political institutions and partnerships that can bring the violence under control. Political haggling, temporary alliances, and trading support are what make democracy democracy; it is imperfect, it is messy, it is even unfair, but the alternatives are so much worse. Ask an Iraqi.

Judith Yaphe is a Senior Fellow at National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the University, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.