CAMBRIDGE, England — Elections set a new nation or a broken one on a course of renewal. Therefore, the conditions under which they are conducted — the presence of security and the absence of intimidation, the degree of public participation (or apathy), including the openness to all segments of the society, the quality of political parties and candidates contesting the election — are part of a free and fair electoral process.

Other questions are also important, such as why an election is being held, who is administering it and whether the time is right. None of the above is easily answered, but one way of evaluating electoral prospects and consequences is to look at the results of past elections.

There is good reason to compare the South Korean election of 1948 with the January-scheduled Iraqi election, which is likely to be judged against the recent and relatively trouble-free Afghan poll. The leadup to the Iraqi election, as was the case in South Korea, comes during a transfer of power from military occupation to a new national government, insurgency and political turmoil as well as controversy in terms of whether the election should be held at all.

The South Korean election of 1948 made the division of Korea permanent, and the country is still divided largely as a result. Seeking to avoid this outcome, many, if not most moderates, along with leftists and communists, opposed elections that could not be held throughout Korea. Even the U.N. Temporary Commission set up by the General Assembly to observe the election voted against holding it, with Australia and Canada in the lead.

What changed the equation was U.S. insistence on a pre-arranged timetable that would allow for the withdrawal of American military forces urgently needed elsewhere. Under U.S. pressure, the Interim Committee (then sitting as an Interim General Assembly) overrode the decision of the U.N. Temporary Commission and supervised the election administered by the American military government.

The South Korean election held in May 1948 had historic consequences. While Syngman Rhee won, the election was boycotted by a majority of moderates and opposed outright by the left. And although it allowed the United States to complete the withdrawal of its military forces the following year, it also left the Republic of Korea, which was proclaimed on Aug. 15, 1948, without a security guarantee of any kind and with a hostile rival as a neighbor, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which was founded in response on Sept. 9, 1948.

Between 1948 and 1950, the Republic of Korea teetered on the brink of collapse due to an authoritarian regime widely viewed as illegitimate. Political assassinations and riots were common, and a rebellion or two marred the political landscape. A wholesale purge of the South Korean Constabulary (forerunner of the South Korean Army) — which had been infiltrated by the South Korean Labor Party — followed. Thousands were arrested and hundreds executed, particularly after the insurrection at Yosu left guerrillas operating in the mountainous areas of the south.

Predictably, the election helped set the stage for the Korean War two years later, prolonged Rhee’s dictatorship for another decade and delayed the long-sought goal of democracy for four decades. In hindsight, it is clear that while the election restored South Korea’s sovereignty, it also set the Korean Peninsula on the wrong course.

Is the U.S. about to repeat the mistake in Iraq? Should Iraq’s political future be mortgaged to an American electoral timetable? One would like to think not, but history may be about to repeat itself.

The U.S., under the Bush administration, remains deeply committed to elections no matter what the security conditions, no matter what the political costs in terms of legitimacy, no matter what the outcome in terms of exacerbating divisiveness. Bullets and ballots don’t mix, and bayonets are no substitute for election monitors.

Just as the interim Iraqi government ensconced in the Green Zone represents only a marginal improvement over the Governing Council before, in the eyes of the Iraqi people, an election will have little meaning and do little good unless it is seen as free, fair and representative and held in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation.

Moreover, the enormous technical problem of registering voters, assuring the safety of U.N. election monitors, let alone Iraqi citizens, in areas held by insurgents, are red flags. The South Korean election of 1948 illustrates what can go wrong unless all ethnic and political groups — Sunnis, Kurds, Shiites — view the election as legitimate. And that means ending the insurgency as a condition for holding elections at all.

A government that cannot ensure the safety of its citizens, whose security forces are barely able to secure police boxes and within whose ranks insurgents run rampant, cannot be expected to hold elections except as a stunt that can only stunt the growth of genuine representative government. While a perfect election is impossible, a deeply flawed one would be worse than none.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.