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October 19, 2004

UN Study: Premature Vote May Prove Disastrous


by Jim Lobe

Elections in Afghanistan and Iraq may prove disastrous by increasing violence and extremism, according to studies of other post-conflict societies included in a book released Monday by United Nations University Press.

If elections in volatile situations are ill-timed or poorly designed, they risk producing the direct opposite of the intended outcome, fueling chaos and reversing progress toward democracy, adds the volume, The UN Role in Promoting Democracy.

"It is one of the perverse realities of post-conflict elections that this linchpin of the democratic process can also be its undoing," Benjamin Reilly, a political scientist at Australian National University, said in a news release announcing the book.

"Elections are a defining characteristic of democracy, but the timing and method of electoral processes are critical," added Reilly, one of the book's contributors. The volume examines post-conflict societies, such as Namibia, Mozambique, Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan, where the United Nations played a major role in holding elections.

Based on the volume's evidence, Iraq is not ready for a vote. (National elections are scheduled for Jan. 31, 2005, but Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar says that may change depending on security in the violence-ridden nation).

By comparison, the book argues that early post-conflict elections in Angola and Bosnia created more problems than they solved. Polls exacerbated existing tensions, increasing support for extremists and encouraging patterns of voting that reflected wartime allegiances. As a result, local elites kept a tight rein over access to power after the vote.

Based on this and other case studies, the book recommends that elections should not be held in post-conflict societies until at least two years after fighting has subsided, in order to properly prepare the people and create an institutional framework for elections.

It is still too early to judge how elections have influenced the peace-building process in other post-conflict societies, such as Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan, said Reilly.

Creating democracy where none has existed is an extremely difficult and lengthy process, according to another contributor to the book, Roland Rich, also of the Australian National University, in Canberra.

"Real change is generational when it comes to instilling democracy," Rich said in an interview.

The book's sober views are in stark contrast to the Bush administration's glowing reports of the election in Afghanistan just over a week ago. According to an article in the Washington Post, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the Afghan vote "breathtaking."

"The great sweep of human history is for freedom. We see that in this region, we have seen it in Afghanistan, and let there be no doubt we are going to see it in Iraq," added Rumsfeld.

But, "a transition election like in Afghanistan's [case] doesn't equal democracy," Rich said, adding that the international community has lots of work to do over many years to build democracy in the nation.

"You can't use elections as an exit strategy," he said.

For example, the United Nations maintained a strong presence in East Timor for a number of years after that nation's first elections in August 2001. Although the security situation there is reasonable today, the elected government is dominated by one party, Rich said.

The academic does not think Iraq should hold elections as scheduled because of the poor security situation there, although 19 months have passed since U.S.-led forces occupied the nation. "If I were an Iraqi, I wouldn't get into a long line to vote," added Rich.

If the election is a mess, he predicted, it will be a major setback for democracy and Iraqis will further lose confidence in the United States. But if the vote goes well, the country will still be in essentially the same situation – in terms of security and infrastructure – the day after the election.

"It will take strong local leadership to bring Iraqis together to work to build democracy for their country," according to Rich, who believes the prospect for democracy there is made much worse because Washington is heading the effort. In his opinion, the United Nations is the only institution that can bring legitimacy to the process.

Despite that favorable opinion of the world body, the book also details many of the UN's weaknesses in post-conflict societies, including a lack of accountability, inflexibility and a tendency to petty bureaucracy.

It argues that the organization's only successes in nation building thus far have been in small countries like Namibia, while its efforts in more populated countries like Cambodia have not produced a democratic culture.

Despite its flaws, the United Nations has never been more important because of the widespread decline of international citizenship, Rich said. "Once countries worked internationally, now they only work where they have national interests."

Canada and the Scandinavian countries are among the few left that still work globally, he said.

That decline has led, for example, to inaction on the current chaos in the Congo. "It's a sad reflection of modern times," said Rich.


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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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