Republican Federalism Tames Iraq's Religious Factions
by Robert Tracinski
The Iraqi election posed a grave potential danger to American interests: the possibility that an overwhelming victory by Shiite religious parties would push Iraq toward a theocratic or quasi-theocratic government allied with Iran.
The Iranians have certainly devoted a lot of money and effort to achieve that result by backing religious parties like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading member of the "List No. 169" coalition backed by the Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric. Yet other experts have assured us, for some time, that Iraqis would not choose a theocratic government. Who was right? It was impossible to tell for sure without polling the Iraqi people themselves, in the only way that really mattered: a national election.
The results of that election are now in, and the winner is: James Madison.
I have been speculating for the past few weeks that the savior of American policy in Iraq would be James Madison. What I meant is that the structure of the interim legislature, for which Iraqis voted on January 30, would implement a crucial principle elucidate by Madison in The Federalist Papers.
In The Federalist, No. 10
, Madison addressed the question of how a federal constitution—a republican system that encompassed a large nation, whose members have diverse backgrounds and interests—would limit the danger of various religious, economic, or regional factions trampling on the rights of others. He answered that a large republic solved this problem by balancing the power of different factions against one another: "Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other." And he applied this specifically to the question of religious factionalism: "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source."
That is precisely the result we seem to have in Iraq. The Shiite coalition dominated by pro-theocracy parties won only 48% of the vote and only 140 seats out of 275 in the interim legislature. Even better, those who planned the process for creating the new Iraqi government had the foresight to require that all of the crucial decisions, such as choosing the nation's new president and prime minister and drafting the new Iraqi constitution, had to be approved by a two-thirds supermajority. The Shiite religionists didn't even get close to commanding that kind of following. As a result, they will be required to form a coalition government where they share power with secular parties who oppose their religious agenda.
And the religious parties are even weaker than that. Their List No. 169 is itself a coalition that contains two major religious parties and number of smaller secular Shiite parties. That means that the religious parties on their own
are even farther below a majority; I'll wait for experts to weigh in on this, but it may be that the Islamists' share of the Iraqi vote is closer to 40%. Iraqi political observers were speculating before the election that the Shiite coalition would not be very strong. It will be even weaker now that its secular members realize that the religionists are not all-powerful.
And it gets worse for the Shiite religious parties. Remember that most Sunni Muslims didn't vote in this election. If the Sunnis participate in future elections, the power of the Shiites will be further diluted.
The New York Times
has a long and excellent analysis
of the election results. (The Washington Post
, by contrast, has a shamefully dishonest analysis
, which twists the facts to make the election look like a victory for Iran.) The most eloquent commentary on the election results is an extraordinary photo accompanying the New York Times
article, which shows Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the black-turbaned Shiite cleric who heads the worst of the Iranian-backed Islamist parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He is shown slumped over and breaking down into tears as the election results are announced.
This is the same man who spent much of the past week stridently demanding a greater role for Islam in the new government, as early election results showed the Shiite coalition with a commanding lead. As I pointed out in TIA Daily, however, that early lead was based on results from Shiite strongholds in southern Iraq and was bound to diminish as results came in from the Kurdish north. I was more right than I expected. So this is not merely a "disappointing result" for the religious parties; it is a demoralizing defeat. This was their best opportunity to achieve an Islamic state—and they have failed.
The result, it appears, is that the Shiite religious faction will be counterbalanced by other Iraqi factions—just as James Madison predicted. In fact, the analysis
by Dexter Filkins in today's New York Times
has distinctly Madisonian overtones. Here are the key passages:
"The verdict handed down by Iraqi voters in the Jan. 30 election appeared to be a divided one, with the Shiite political alliance, backed by the clerical leadership in Najaf, opposed in nearly equal measure by an array of mostly secular minority parties. According to Iraqi leaders here, the fractured mandate almost certainly heralds a long round of negotiating, in which the Shiite alliance will have to strike deals with parties run by the Kurds and others, most of which are secular and broadly opposed to an enhanced role for Islam or an overbearing Shiite government....
"The vote tally, which appeared to leave the Shiite alliance with about 140 of the national assembly's 275 seats, fell short of what Shiite leaders had been expecting, and seemed to blunt some of the triumphant talk that could already be heard in some corners. The final results seemed to ease fears among Iraq's Sunni, Kurd, and Christian minorities that the leadership of the Shiite majority might feel free to ignore minority concerns, and possibly fall under the sway of powerful clerics, some of whom advocate the establishment of a strict Islamic state. As a result, some Iraqi leaders predicted Sunday that the Shiite alliance would try to form a 'national unity government,' containing Kurdish and Sunni leaders, as well as secular Shiites, possibly including the current prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Such a leadership would all but ensure that no decisions would be taken without a broad national consensus."
Iraq's enlarged political sphere (to use Madison's metaphor) includes Kurds, Sunnis, Christians, and secular Shiites, who counterbalance the power of the religious Shiites. And although Sunnis are also heavily influenced by Islamic fanaticism, sectarian differences will make it nearly impossible for the two factions "to discover their own strength, and to act in unison," as Madison put it.
If this is the future of Iraq—a future in which ethnic and religious factions are balanced against one another, their factional agendas canceled out in a "broad national consensus"—that is good news for the Iraqis, for the future of the Middle East, and for the success of America's endeavor in Iraq. The election results are good news for the Iraqis, because it means that they are far more likely to form a stable government that recognizes the rights of its citizens, rather than subjugating them to a tyranny of the Shiite majority. It is good news for the future of the Middle East, because such a nation situated next door to Iran would further undermine that nation's already unpopular theocracy.
It is very good news for the United States, because it increases the likelihood that, in the end, we will not have spent our blood and treasure merely to create a hostile new theocracy. It increases the likelihood that we can export some element of our political ideals—James Madison and all—to a region of the world that is vital to our interests.