Elections Are Not Democracy; the United States Has Essentially Stopped Trying to Build a Democratic Order in Iraq, and Is Simply Trying to Gain Stability and Legitimacy

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Byline: Fareed Zakaria

By the time you read this, you will know how the elections in Iraq have gone. No matter what the violence, the elections are an important step forward, for Iraq and for the Middle East. But it is also true, alas, that no matter how the voting turns out, the prospects for genuine democracy in Iraq are increasingly grim. Unless there is a major change in course, Iraq is on track to become another corrupt, oil-rich quasi-democracy, like Russia and Nigeria.

In April 2003, around the time Baghdad fell, I published a book that described the path to liberal democracy. In it, I pointed out that there had been elections in several countries around the world--most prominently Russia--that put governments in place that then abused their authority and undermined basic human rights. I called such regimes illiberal democracies. In NEWSWEEK that month, I outlined the three conditions Iraq had to fulfill to avoid this fate. It is currently doing badly at all three.

First, you need to avoid major ethnic or religious strife. In almost any "divided" society, elections can exacerbate group tensions unless there is a strong effort to make a deal between the groups, getting all to buy into the new order. "The one precondition for democracy to work is a consensus among major ethnic, regional, or religious groups," says Larry Diamond, one of the leading experts on democratization. This has not happened. Instead the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds are increasingly wary of one another and are thinking along purely sectarian lines. This "groupism" also overemphasizes the religious voices in these communities, and gives rise to a less secular, less liberal kind of politics.

Second, create a non-oil-based economy and government. When a government has easy access to money, it doesn't need to create a real economy. In fact, it doesn't need its citizens because it doesn't tax them. The result is a royal court, distant and detached from its society.

Iraq's oil revenues were supposed to be managed well, going into a specially earmarked development fund rather than used to finance general government activities. The Coalition Provisional Authority steered this process reasonably well, though its auditors gave it a less-than-glowing review. Since the transfer of power to the Iraqi provisional government, Iraq's oil revenues have been managed in an opaque manner, with scarce information. "There is little doubt that Iraq is now using its oil wealth for general revenues," says Isam al Khafaji, who worked for the CPA briefly and now runs Iraq Revenue Watch for the Open Society Institute. "Plus, the Iraqi government now has two sources of easy money. If the oil revenues aren't enough, there's Uncle Sam. …