Good Constitution is No Substitution for Good Elections

In the March 25 issue of Time magazine, under the title of 10 Big Ideas in government, Fareed Zakaria wrote on the subject of transitions to democracy: The focus should be less on elections and more on constitutions. I beg to differ, clean elections is a better recipe for democracy than a good constitution, especially in the Middle East, but first there are caveats. Writing a good constitution and running an election are two factors out of many in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, we can debate their relative contributions but the effects of other factors and their differences must be understood; a constitution comes before an election, therefore the elections are conditional on the constitution, and the letter of the constitution is a separate factor from its interpretation.

The Middle East had numerous good constitutions written by internationally renowned legal experts yet democracy did not take roots. There also were benevolent dictators and leaders of conscience who gained the trust of their peoples for a while, this did not lead to democracy either. But perhaps the single glaring fact that stands in the way of Zakaria’s conclusion is the case of Moammar Gaddafi, who wrote a good Utopian constitution which could have been the pride of any aspiring anarchist, but Gaddafi had no official head of state status, except he reserved the function of the ultimate interpreter of the constitution. Middle eastern dictators know that their most powerful weapon is their exclusivity over the interpretation of the constitution, no matter what the letter of the constitution says.

The constitution by itself is an ideal target, the interpreter is the key mechanism to reach it. On the other hand, the elections are by themselves a mechanism. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

The Middle East had many good constitutions and trustworthy leaders but no trustworthy election mechanism, the Iraqi elections are no exception. What the US and the international community can offer is UN oversight over the elections. In the past this would be a difficult and costly proposition, today with the widespread use of the internet and cellular phones the achievement of clean and transparent elections with international oversight is achievable if the political will exists.

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