Did Prohibiting Local Elections Derail Iraq?
Professor Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago earlier authored a prescient paper, ,”How to Build Democracy in Iraq.” He now writes:
“In recent weeks, political reporters have done much to clarify the development of prisoner-interrogation policies in Iraq. I hope that similar efforts might clarify the decision-making process that led the occupation authorities in June 2003 to reject any plans for early local elections in Iraq.
How important was this policy? Its consequences may be seen in the problems that we face today. Your 6/19/2003 report  on the cancellation of planned municipal elections in Najaf is particularly painful to reread from today’s perspective. (See also the 6/28/2003 article by W. Booth and R. Chandrasekaran in the Washington Post .) You reported then that local US officials believed “Najaf was ready for elections and that the theocrats would have done poorly.” But even if the Sadrists had won the election, their movement may have developed very differently over the past year if they could have built their political power by spending public funds for local reconstruction, rather than by recruiting soldiers for armed resistance.
What do we know about how this policy decision was made? Jay Garner suggested in a March 2004 Guardian interview  that he may have been fired because of his plans to hold local elections, which he believed to be opposed by proponents of “free market” economic reforms. Clearly there was some highly-connected opposition to local democracy in Iraq. But the suggestion of a free-market motivation seems implausible to me (and I am professor of economics at the University of Chicago, where advocating free markets is a local specialty). Even those who hoped to buy Iraqi public assets for bargain-basement prices should have recognized that, for long-term enforcement of their property rights, these transactions would need more legitimacy than occupation officials alone could provide. It seems clear that the only people who really stood to profit from a policy of denying elections were emigre political leaders who did not want competition from the home-grown political factions that these local elections would have cultivated.
The decision not to allow local democracy in Iraq during the past year might be defended by an argument that Iraq lacked the basic internal security that democracy requires. But such arguments are difficult to fit with our Administration’s expressed optimism that elections will be feasible in January 2005. If all the power of America’s armed forces could not make Iraq safe enough for democracy in July 2003 or January 2004, then it is hard to see how a weak interim government can make Iraq safer for democracy in January 2005. Furthermore, if the interim leadership actually does prove strong enough to gain secure control of Iraq by January 2005, then they may themselves be severely tempted to prevent free elections. Our only hope is that the end of foreign political control might itself create the conditions for peace and security in Iraq. But if so, then local democracy should have been recognized as a prerequisite for peace and security during the occupation period.
The decision to not permit local elections in occupied Iraq seems to have been made at the highest level of this government. Beyond its unfortunate consequences for Iraqi society, this policy decision has fundamentally tarnished America’s good name. After all our promises to bring democracy to Iraq, our refusal to allow any free democracy during our occupation period may be as obscenely un-American as the Abu Graib horrors.
June 19, 2003
Roger B. Myerson
W.C.Norby Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
University of Chicago
1126 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
Cole: Yes, it was a great mistake.
The reason Bremer is said to have given for cancelling the Najaf elections at that time was that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq candidate seemed likely to win, and he was too close to the hardliners in Tehran. There was some language about not wanting a “pro-Iranian” mayor of Najaf. (I’m not sure how you would get an elected mayor of Najaf that was not pro-Iranian). I think Garner is right, that the dissolution of the Baath army and the refusal to allow local elections, were policies adopted to ensure that there would be no domestic forces in Iraq capable of standing against Neocon social engineering projects like Polish-style shock therapy for the economy, and just more generally, direct US rule. Bremer’s project was to be MacArthur in Tokyo except in Baghdad. Local elections would have gotten in the way. Ironically, it was the very steps Bremer took to weaken Iraqi civil society that threw the country into chaos and made it impossible for him to stay for the two or three years initially envisaged.