Many of the news accounts and commentary I've seen covering the recent Iraqi elections have been emphasizing how "smoothly" the process transpired, and how the competitiveness during the campaign, coupled with the high voter turnout (about 62%) and the relatively low level of violence on election day signal the health of Iraq's democracy. Somehow we are supposed to acknowledge the fact that "only" about 40 people were killed in election day violence and that "only" a handful of candidates were assassinated on election day indicates that the country is approaching something resembling normalcy. Something tells me the bar is being set a bit low here.
The fact is that many of these commentaries and op-eds seem to be paying attention to superficial signs of progress. Ubiquitous campaign posters hung alongside the streets are not signs of a vibrant democracy. And though the absence of large-scale violence on an election day is a necessary condition for a functioning democracy, it is certainly not sufficient. So what are the key questions stemming from the recent election that may indicate some sort of progress?
Most important are questions of the rule of law and transcending the sectarian political dynamic that has governed power relations in Iraq since 2003. The lack of the former was exposed prior to the elections when it became clear that a legally-dubious de-Baathification committee could disqualify over 400 candidates for alleged ties with Baathists. The Iraqi institutional framework demonstrated its incapacity to deal with these problems in a legitimate way by not providing any sort of checks and balances to this process.
As for judging whether progress has been made in transcending the salience of identity politics in Iraq, the election results may provide some indication. The top two coalitions appear to be Nuri al-Maliki's 'State of Law' and Iyad Allawi's 'Iraqiyya'. Three questions to keep in mind are: can Maliki make inroads into some Sunni majority provinces in Iraq's center and north? And can Allawi make any inroads into some Shi'i majority provinces in Iraq's south? If the answer in both cases is a yes, then there may be a chance that Iraqi voters are eschewing identity politics and voting on substantive issues. As results filter in through the next week, the answers to these questions will become clearer.
One more thing: when talking about democracy in this context, it's important to recognize that we're talking about a particular kind of democracy - a democracy as we conceive of it in the U.S. This particular conception of democracy emphasizes individual rights like voting rights, elections, property rights, etc. It should be recognized that this conception of democracy is not universal. Other conceptions of democracy stress more substantive issues like the need for strong institutions, social services, clean water, electricity, etc. If these basic human needs aren't met, why should anyone care about the political process? Hence the need to transcend the prevalence of identity politics and start making the debate about substantive issues.