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[casi] A Democratic Iraq? Don't Hold Your Breath

March 31, 2003

A Democratic Iraq? Don't Hold Your Breath

by Patrick Basham

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government
at the Cato Institute.

The Bush administration's plan for the reconstruction of a post-Saddam Iraq
includes the laudable goal of a democratic political system. This new
democracy, it is argued, will serve as a model throughout the Islamic
world, like the so-called Velvet Revolution that swept across Eastern
Europe at the Cold War's end. Unfortunately, the White House will be
disappointed with the short-to-medium-term result of its effort to
establish a stable democracy in Iraq, or any other nation home to a large
Muslim population.

This pessimism stems from an appreciation of what causes democracy to
flourish in a society. Political scientist Ronald Inglehart, an expert on
political culture and democratic values, studied the responses to the
"World Values Survey," which provides data from more than 70 countries,
including 10 Islamic nations, ranging from dictatorships to Western
democracies. Inglehart analyzed the empirical linkages between the survey
responses within each society and a society's level of democracy, as
measured by the Freedom House political rights and civil liberties index.
As a result, he concludes that "the prospects for democracy in Islamic
countries seem particularly poor."

Although only one in four countries with a Muslim majority is an electoral
democracy, in most Muslim countries a high level of popular support exists
for the concept of democracy. But that's not enough. According to
Inglehart, "overt support for democracy seems a necessary but not
sufficient condition for democratic institutions to emerge." Other factors
are necessary.

The long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular
political culture that solidly supports democracy. The following cultural
factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a
stable democratic political system:

Political trust, i.e., the assumption that one's opponent will accept the
rules of the democratic process and surrender power if he loses an
Social tolerance, i.e., the acceptance of unpopular groups (e.g.,
Economic development (a high standard of living legitimizes both democratic
institutions and incumbent politicians);
Popular support for gender equality; and a
High priority on freedom of speech and popular participation in

According to Inglehart, among Islamic societies, levels of trust,
tolerance, economic well-being, gender equality, and the priority given to
political activism fall far short of what is found in all established

As in other societies, the condition of Islamic democracy is tied to the
respective political culture, which is clearly tied to the respective level
of economic development. This is because democratization is much more
likely to occur - and to take hold - in richer rather than in poorer
nations. A higher standard of living breeds values that demand greater

Hence, Turkey, the most economically developed and socially tolerant
Islamic country, is currently in a democratic transition zone with the
likes of South Africa. Meanwhile, the Iranian political culture exhibits
positive signs of democratization, as befits the second wealthiest Islamic
country. But like so many of its poor brethren, Iraq will not be a stable
democratic nation until it is much wealthier than at present.

However, President Bush's plan for the democratization of Iraq is premised
upon the adoption of a constitution that will be successfully implemented
in the short-term by groups of Iraqi elites bargaining among one another.
Bush is placing a large wager that the formation of democratic institutions
in Iraq can stimulate a democratic political culture. If he's correct, it
will constitute a democratic first.

On the contrary, the available evidence strongly suggests that the causal
relationship works the other way round. During the 1990s, two leading
political scientists studied 131 countries and concluded that economic
development causes higher levels of democratic values in the political
culture that, in turn, produce higher, more stable levels of democracy. In
sum, a political culture shapes democracy far more than democracy shapes
the political culture.

Therefore, the Iraqi democratic reconstruction project will be a good deal
harder than White House theorists expect. In practice, the realization of
Iraq's democratic potential will depend more on the introduction of a free
market economic system and its long-term positive influence on Iraqi
political culture than on a United Nations-approved election.

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