TCS Daily

Switzerland in the Desert?

By Steven L. Taylor - June 15, 2004 12:00 AM

With the official transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi government on the horizon a monumental new challenge will soon begin: the drafting of a permanent constitution for a democratic government. Chief amongst the difficulties is the oft-cited problem of religious, ethnic and geographical divisions within Iraq. Any new government must take into consideration these cleavages, and especially must avoid any situation where one group is allowed to have substantial power over the others. Democracy, depending on its design, can create a situation where the majority can tyrannize the minority (or, indeed, vice versa) -- such conditions must be avoided, or breakdown of the new state will result.

Iraq needs what University of California, San Diego Professor of political science, Arend Lijphart terms in his work a "consensus democracy" which he defines not just as government by the "most" but rather government by "as many as possible." In short, an institutional framework is needed that mitigates tyranny of the majority over minorities, and that creates the conditions for compromise in public policy.

A quintessential consensus democracy is Switzerland, a country divided by language and religion, but which uses a system of government that makes it impossible for one linguistic or religious group to dominate the state or to tyrannize other groups in the society. The United States has certain consensus features, such as the equal representation of all states in the U.S. Senate, and the ability of the Supreme Court to overturn a law which was passed by a majority of the Congress, even if the law was overwhelmingly popular at its time of passage. In both cases certain minorities can gain access to power at the expense of the majority.

Such features do not deny the idea of majority power, but they mitigate, substantially, against majority tyranny.

With this in mind, here are some key recommendations for constitution-building in Iraq:

Proportional Representation. A clear need will be to create an electoral system which guarantees that all interests will be represented in the national government, especially the legislature. A system of single-member districts such as we have in the United States, which encourages two large parties, and gives substantial governing power to majority parties, would not be appropriate, especially in a case like Iraq's in which electoral coalitions will be more difficult to form. Indeed, the likelihood is that Iraq will have far more than two parties regardless of the electoral system. So, there is a necessity to create a context that allows more representation, not less. As such, some system of proportional representation, which awards seats to parties in rough proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive, is the way to go. There are a number of variants of such a system, but a system that ensures all significant actors a seat at the table is a must.

It is worth noting that a balance will need to be struck that would avoid an overly fragmentary party system. A balance can be created, depending on the rules of the electoral game that would avoid a system such as Israel's, with over a dozen parties capable of winning seats in the Knesset, and an overly restrictive system that might create bitter losers.

Federalism. Given that the ethnic and religious differences in Iraq are largely linked to specific territories bespeaks of the need to foster a system which will grant substantial policy-making autonomy to the various regions of the country, like what we have in the United States. The regions should be able to make policy on day-to-day items for themselves.

Bicameralism. A two-chamber legislature would also be a good idea, both to create different modes of representation (by population and by region), but also to allow substantial deliberation prior to the final passage of legislation. This could be either the type we have in the United States, which requires all legislation to pass through both chambers of the legislature, or the German variant in which the upper chamber only has power over all legislation which affects the regions directly, but does not have a say in truly national legislation.

Regardless of the exact model used, the basic goals of allowing for specific regional representation to increase the voice of minorities, and the need to foster compromise between the two chambers would help to allay the possibility of one faction being able to legislatively dominant the others.

A Strong Judiciary with Judicial Review. A strong court system is vital for the protection of the liberties of citizens, especially when there are numerous groups in the society which are suspicious of other groups. The courts need to have the power to ensure that the laws are being properly and equitably enforced. Further, there needs to be a mechanism, i.e., judicial review, which would allow for the voiding of laws which violate the basic rights of citizens, especially when those citizens are in a minority of the population. The danger here would be if religious law was too strongly a part of the civil code, which could result in situation in Iraq opposite of what we see in the United States: courts using their power to undercut state secularism by infusing various interpretations of Islam into the law via court rulings. This is an area that requires delicacy, but one that nonetheless needs serious consideration.

There are numerous other issues that require attention, and this column is too brief to address them all. One key fact is that a cookie-cutter approach can not be applied -- what works in the United States may not work in Iraq, although much that does work here can work there as well, although it will likely require modification. It is above all else necessary to understand that strong and well designed institutions are what are needed for the fostering of a functioning democratic state in Iraq and that great care, time, and expense are going to be necessary for this project. If done right, this situation can be a shining example for the region and would have profound effects for the lives on the people of Iraq, and potentially for the whole of the Middle East.

Steven L. Taylor, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Troy University. He writes daily on politics at


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