Iraq has a new constitution. Iraqis approved the national charter by a narrow margin, prompting allegations of fraud by dissenters. While the outcome produced a document that is more democratic and representative than any other in Iraq’s history, the referendum results highlighted the country’s sharp ethnic divisions. Some of those divisions will persist no matter what happens in Iraq. The new government in Baghdad must minimize the rejectionists and marginalize them so that they are revealed for what they are: enemies of a genuinely democratic state.
The official tally for the Oct. 15 referendum showed 79 percent of Iraqi voters approved the new constitution; 21 percent rejected it. More than 95 percent of Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites, two of the country’s three ethnic and religious groups, voted yes. Turnout was a respectable 63 percent. As many as 10 million Iraqis voted, an estimated 1 million more than the ballots cast in the January parliamentary election, and most of the new voters were Sunni Muslims.
A healthy margin of victory was not enough to guarantee the charter’s adoption. The referendum law stipulated that rejection of the document by two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces would have been sufficient to defeat the constitution. In fact, overwhelming majorities in two provinces voted no. In a third province, Ninevah, “only” 55 percent of voters voted no. In other words, 11 percent of voters in one province — some 80,000 people in a country of 23 million — determined the fate of the constitution. Predictably, there were complaints of fraud, but they have not been substantiated.
The majority of “no” votes came from Iraq’s Sunnis, who were supporters of former dictator Saddam Hussein and the chief beneficiaries of his government. Although they are a minority in Iraq, they were the elite. They have been angry at their loss of power and status with the fall of the old regime; the fact that the new government is more democratic and more representative means nothing to them. The terrorists who have been waging war against the new government in Baghdad and their foreign supporters are also not going to be swayed by the approval of the constitution by nearly 80 percent of the Iraqi people.
There are reasons to be concerned about the new constitution. In addition to the role of Islam, and the rights afforded women (or the lack thereof), it provides for autonomy for regions, which some fear could lead to the breakup of the country. The prospect of an independent Kurdish state is one of the great fears of the entire region since it could be a magnet for Kurdish dominated parts of other countries, such as Syria or Turkey. No one, apart from the Kurds, wants to see maps of the Middle East redrawn.
The best way to deal with the flaws in the constitution is to engage politically. The constitution can be amended in the first four months of the new parliament, which is to be elected in mid-December. An amendment must only secure a majority in Parliament and then pass a public referendum. Even Sunni nationalists now argue that it is better to work within the political process than to abstain and risk the breakup of the country. They are still smarting from the decision to turn their back on the constitutional convention, which produced the document they now challenge.
It is a positive sign, then, that three Sunni parties — the People of Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Iraqi National Dialogue — have formed a coalition, the Iraqi Accord Front, to contest the Dec. 15 elections. The party leaders will encourage Sunnis to vote in the ballot.
That change of heart could make the difference for Iraq (and the change of heart is real — two of the three parties in the coalition opposed the constitution). Real democracy requires the protection of minority rights, but those minorities must join the political process if they are to enjoy those rights. Unfortunately, that is likely to be a frustrating and dangerous choice. In addition to being a minority, Iraq’s Sunnis face challenges of their own making: they are deeply divided, which further marginalizes them politically. The readiness of some Sunnis to participate in the December election will also make them a target of violent extremists, who have stepped up their activity after a brief lull last week. The number of attacks is likely to rise as a result of Sunni frustration with the referendum results.
No Iraqi should be intimidated by the extremists. Iraq has made great progress since power was handed over by the U.S.-led forces that toppled the Hussein government. It has elected an interim assembly, produced a constitution, passed that document and is now preparing for a real national parliament. Despite mounting violence, Iraqis have chosen to take control of their own destiny. And as a result, there is hope for their country.
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