Thursday, January 28, 2010

Banning candidates in elections is a bad idea. Period. If anyone is going to decide who should be accepted or rejected in the electoral process, it should be voters. That’s the point of an election.

With the recent announcement that Iraq's electoral commission intends to ban even more candidates from running in the nation's March parliamentary elections, the US is understandably peeved. The idea that "the only solution is political" has become a bit of a buzz-phrase, but that doesn't mean it is wrong. A purely military solution is simply not feasible - just killing everyone isn't going to work in Iraq.
Since a military solution in Iraq is a non-starter, that leaves a political solution as the only available option. For a political solution to work, incentives must be provided for one’s opponents to participate in society – the economy, the media, and the political process. These incentives include amnesty for low-level opponents, guarantees against reprisals, jobs, education, and other opportunities to participate. Not letting your opponents participate in elections is, to put it mildly, quite counterproductive to these policies.

When candidates are banned from political office, even for well-justified and ostensibly legal reasons, it only gives the public more reason to doubt the political process. And the public, in this case, is usually right. Governments ban candidates for office when they present a threat to the incumbent’s rule – we see this clearly in Iran. Banning candidates in Iraq, undoubtedly a more permissive political environment than Iran, only does needless damage to the perception of democracy.

Ironically, although we are seeing backsliding in Iraq on this issue, in Afghanistan the approach is almost the opposite. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words from today’s London conference illustrate this point precisely:

“Many low- and mid-level Taliban are driven to extremism more by economic opportunity or local politics than by ideology. With the right incentives, they can become part of Afghan democracy.”

Presumably, providing incentives to the Taliban in order to reintegrate them into Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy would not include banning them from public office.

Although the US is not yet publicly 100% on board with accommodating the Taliban, it would appear that they are moving in that direction. Even in the face of the slow pace of the US policy adjustment, the Karzai Administration is moving at full speed in the direction of reconciliation and reintegration.

This is the right approach. Getting extremist groups to participate in the political process should be the ultimate goal of the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If the ideas and ideologies of the US and these countries’ western-backed governments are better than those of their opponents (and I believe they are), then let them stand on their merits and be judged by the public.

Ultimately, it is a lot better for electoral opponents and parliamentary opposition members to argue and yell than it is for them to shoot at each other. Although meant for a different context, Winston Churchill’s words come to mind: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war. “General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO’s forces in Afghanistan, probably said it best: “I believe that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome. And it's the right outcome."

You have to let your opponents run for office if you want them to participate in the political process. That’s how democracy works.

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