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,
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
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
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.