Is Iraq ready for an election? Q&A with Harvey Langholtz

Harvey Langholtz, U.N. peacekeeping expert and associate professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary, responds to questions regarding Iraq's preparedness for national elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

Harvey LangholtzIs Iraq ready for an election?
HL: What we're talking about here is the idea of holding an election sometime after a war or violent conflict. In some cases, the two sides have reconciled, and they're ready, and the trust that you need for an election is there. In some cases it's not there. It looks like in Iraq, it's not there. The hard feeling between the Sunni and Shi'ites is still strong, and, of course, they don't like the United States, and the Sunni are trying to stop the election. You really have to wonder if [the people of Iraq] are ready for an election or not-maybe not. Obviously there are some groups who are going to try to slow it down. There are going to be some who try to undermine it, but I think this election is going to go forward. We'll see how it works out.

Assuming the election does go forward as scheduled, can it be successful?
HL: Sure, there are ways that it could be successful, but it's a difficult situation. When we vote here in the United States, there is an assumption about trust. If the Democrats or Republicans lose at the polls, they're not going to take to arms-that's just out of the question. But that's not out of the question in some other countries, and that's not out of the question in Iraq. You have to have that level of trust and confidence before an election can be effective, and I think that's really the question we're all asking-is Iraq at that point or not?

Is it naïve to think that the election will curb insurgence?

HL: I find it hard to believe that the insurgents are going to respect the results of the election. They're not going to say, "Well, there's a mandate, so I guess we should stop our violence." It just doesn't seem to be in the cards. It's going to be difficult. On the one hand you hope to persuade people through logic-the idea that the public has articulated its view through the vote. I think we're sort of on that balance point in Iraq-the question is will the loser in this election respect it and accept the results, or will the loser continue to use force. Only time will tell.

Is it possible to have a free and fair election in Iraq?
HL: What does 'free and fair' mean? Does 'free and fair' mean no bribes? In the United States, when we use of the phrase we mean only eligible people will vote and there will be no irregularities at the polls. In Iraq, that's going to be pretty tough. But what are the alternatives here? Should we just have no election? Should we just continue to use force and not even try to draw the country into its own self determination? This is the problem with elections. You can't have a cease-fire on Monday and an election on Tuesday. People won't be psychologically ready for it. But the sooner you have that election, the sooner you sort of cross that threshold and take that step toward democracy. Some of the places where this has been more successful include Mozambique, where they had a long and bitter civil war, and finally there was a cease-fire, and the two sides agreed to have a vote. People came out for this vote patiently waiting in long lines that snaked for a half a mile outside the voting booths for this privilege-this opportunity-of voting. This is something they respected, and this is something they wanted.
Here in the United States, we take voting for granted. You might vote, you might not, it sort of depends. Very few people get that sort of emotional sense of involvement of our right to vote. You saw it in Mozambique, and hopefully, if you do see that in Iraq, it will mean the public is ready psychologically for a vote. But if people boycott the polls, if they use violence and intimidation to prevent others from participating in the polls, you have to wonder if the population is really ready psychologically for that commitment and that acceptance of the outcome.

To what extent does the continuing violence influence the psychological impact of the election?
HL: With the psychological impact of elections, I think there are a couple of things. First of all, an election should give people a sense of their own self determination, their own collective self determination-you know, I voted, you voted, we voted-in the United States, whether you voted for Bush or Kerry, the people have spoken. You have that sense that nobody outside forced the result on us. It was done fair and square. Win or lose, you feel like at least the other citizens of the country have indicated what they want. So you have to be ready for that psychologically. But, in the situation in Iraq, I don't know if they're ready psychologically. They may still be wanting to fight, and I think we may see that the insurgents will continue to fight. I think that the Sunnis know that they're in about a 20 percent minority. While maybe they were able to hold power during Hussein's regime even though they were a minority, they know that it's going to be unlikely in the future. They don't like it, and they'd rather use violence to undermine the election than participate and lose.

What happens next, after the election?
HL: We'll see what happens next. I'm not predicting any of these, but on one extreme, it might be so chaotic, so impossible, that it would be just wrong to even claim that there had been an election. The results would be called into question. On the other extreme, I think it's plausible that there could be an election which is flawed, or has minor problems, but in the end [it would be recognized] that the people have spoken, they people have voted. Then the United States says, "OK, you have had your own self determination, this is who you've elected, and this is one step toward self governance and self sufficiency and one step closer to U.S. troops pulling out." The reality could be anywhere in between these.

What influence does continued U.S. presence have after the election?
HL: It's a question of providing security. If the Iraqi police and Iraqi forces could provide their own security and could fight these insurgents themselves, then we wouldn't be needed. But that doesn't seem to be the case, and that's why U.S. forces remain there. If U.S. forces pulled out too soon, the place could degenerate into civil war.

How important is a successful election to the overall peace process?
HL: I think it's very important especially, if Iraq, in the long term, is going to be a self-governing democracy. If you don't have successful elections, if it becomes just a question of the use of force again, of another Saddam Hussein-like figure coming along and using force and intimidation to dominate the country, then the elections would be a moot point-there would no effect to them.

I think the real question on peoples' minds is this: What happens if they take these steps toward democracy, and the people the Iraqis elect are strong anti-Americans? What if they say, "What Iraq needs is a strong army to take back the territories from Iran and from Kuwait that the United States robbed from us." What are we going to do then? I don't know. That's far out in the future, but we'll see what happens. I won't call it likely, but it's possible.

These are the psychological points of an election that people don't realize. An election is a very, very important transition point on the road from war to peace, from chaos to self governance, self sufficiency and democracy. That's why I say the timing has to be right for an election. You can't have an election too early because the population won't be ready for it. People have to understand the commitment and the buy-in that goes with that election. Basically what it boils down to is that the loser in the election has to know that they are not going to return to violence and seek through force what they could not gain at the ballot box. We'll see where Iraq comes out on that one.

How important is voter education in the election to that acceptance?
HL: I think that there's a cultural and a psychological acceptance that has to take place. Picture the United States. Would the Democrats ever think about just refusing to accept the idea that Bush had won and have a civil war between red states and blue states? No, we're not going to do it. You might not like the outcome, or you might like it, but the point is that even to introduce the idea of using force, to take up arms here in the United States to ignore the outcome of the election is just not in our psychology. Well, it is in the psychology in Iraq. And that's the point. A country has to be ready for it. As you look around at other peacekeeping missions or post-conflict situations, whether they be in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Mozambique, Cambodia or Haiti, these same issues come up again and again. Will the population accept the idea that we're going go through this together, we're going to vote, and we're going to abide by the outcome? Or are the fighting factions, or previously fighting factions, still so far apart psychologically that they just won't sit down together and vote? Those are the questions.

How do you encourage the needed psychological shift to a resolution between factions?
HL: There's a tendency to define these things in our own American terms, where democracy is our tradition. It's just an article of faith here among Americans, but you have some countries or populations where they've been fighting for generations. How can you talk things through in a country like Yugoslavia or Rwanda, where the ethnic hatred is so pervasive and deep, how can you talk these things through. I've been to Yugoslavia as part of my work, and you start talking to people, and they bring up the Battle of the Blackbird that was 600 years ago. They talk about revenge for what was done to their grandfathers. Well, they're just not ready-they're just not ready for a vote. As two Americans, we may think, why can't we just talk to these people, why can't we just convince them that it's in their best interest. No, they'd rather fight. They have hatred on their hearts. They have bitter memories, they've been raised to hate the other side, and you can't just psychologically erase that.

Is it a matter of giving it more time?
HL: Yeah, like generations (laughs). But you know, there are things that one can do to build trust and confidence, but it's not easy. We've seen efforts of trying to create business relationships and trade relationships between ethnic factions-for example in Yugoslavia. Who you trade with, you meet in the market place. One will benefit by buying, one will benefit by selling, and trust will develop. So there are things that can be done. Culturally based things-business, schools, an integrated police force-can contribute to the fabric of civic life and help people learn to live together and get along. Sometimes it's an uphill battle.

Where do elections fit in the overall peacekeeping process?
HL: I think, in a way, elections represent sort of the culmination, or the end. If you can get through that, you're there. If you can get through that election, then there's a real measure of civil self sufficiency that you've achieved psychologically.