One fault line along which revolutionary pressures run is elections. Questions of who gets elected, for what type of position, and under what conditions, have ignited political violence throughout Western civilization. These issues are as old as the conflict over the German electors that ignited the Thirty Years War, and the nasty war between the democratic and oligarchic factions in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian Wars.
In perhaps a better world than ours, the offer to hold a national election might bring an insurgency to a standstill. Assuming the election was meaningful (real political power would be apportioned as a result) and fair, the warring factions might see the election as a superior way to settle their differences once and for all.
Elections often do have an important role to play in ending internal wars, but not in this fashion. Once serious violence has broken out, the combatants have little trust for one another, and the competition for votes (as Fareed Zakaria has argued) can deepen animosities among groups, rather than squelching them. And those aren't the only unintended, unwelcome side effects of trying to hold an election in the middle of a revolutionary conflict. The US push for elections in South Vietnam didn't stop the NLF insurgencyAs in other such conflicts, the guerrillas frequently threatened anyone going to the polls. These threats heightened fears of the NLF, exactly the opposite of what leaders in Saigon and Washington wanted to happen.
More frequently, elections play an important role at the beginning and end of an internal war. Elections may create enough outrage (the Gurr thesis about the causes of revolutionary violence) to incite an insurgency. Under some conditions (for example, the strong chance that a dissatisfied faction might fare poorly at the polls), elections may also convince competitive elites (the Tilly thesis) that there's little to be gained from the elections. The best course of action for ousting the incumbent elite, then, is to take up the gun. Jonas Savimbi's decision to lead UNITA out of the coalition government created in the 1994 Lusaka accord fit this picture, a competitive elite that saw "normal politics" far less promising than continued fighting.
An election may be the capstone to negotiations and military campaigns that are bringing the insurgency to a close. If both sides have reached a point where they see further combat leading nowhere, they may broker an arrangement where the election ends that unproductive phase of the competition between them. Happily, the recent civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua ended this way, with the insurgents agreeing to participation in planned elections as a formal end to the conflict. Insurgents may also losing to the point where elections proceed in spite of them, adding to the current government's legitimacy. At the end of the Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines, elections showed exactly how impotent the insurgency had become.
Elections are a means to a political end. You therefore have to be as Clausewitzian about them as you do about warfare: the ultimate aim is the creation of a new political reality that didn't exist before citizens pulled the handle in the voting booth, or guerrillas pulled the triggers of their guns. Until both sides are convinced that elections are in their political interests, there's practically no chance that they will end an internal war.
Since the Iraq invasion didn't turn out as expected, with a smooth handover of power and sovereignty to a newly-formed Iraqi government, the Bush Administration has been rather quiet (actually, silent) about its "exit strategy." Clearly, Administration officials think the January elections will be a significant landmark—but how, exactly? Do they mark the end of American military involvement in Iraq, or something else?
Reading the paragraphs above, it's obvious that, based on past experiences of insurgencies, the elections won't convince the different guerrilla groups in Iraq to lay down their arms. Elections won't convince the average Iraqi that they shouldn't be afraid of insurgent reprisals for cooperating with the interim government.
That's not to say that elections won't matter at all. I often worry that, when we talk about the politics of countries like Vietnam and Iraq, Americans see the people who live there as dumb brutes. To say something like, Iraqis just aren't ready for democracy, is a grave insult not only to the highly Westernized Iraqi exiles, but also to most of the people living in Iraq today. Certainly, there are Iraqis who are ignorant of the theory and practice of democracy, just as a matter of education. (You could make the same claim about segments or pockets of any country, by the way.) And there are those for whom anything smacking of Western civilization is an anathema to their version of Islamic piety. Even those without much of an education can figure out the value of some kind of representation for themselves, their village or neighborhood, their clan, or their sect.
Those who were ready to embrace some kind of constitution and democratic election immediately after the invasion never got the chance. The chaos of the poorly managed occupation made these issues moot. The January elections may, to some degree that's hard to predict in advance, re-ignite their desire for a better political order than the mess they have today. For that to become an important new force in the Iraqi insurgency, those people—their feelings, their calculations of daily advantage and survival, their affiliation to local and national groups, their sense of hope amidst the rubble—have to have a place to go, and something to do. If the election is just a checkbox item in the Bush Administration's hastily cobbled-together List of Things To Do In Iraq, it won't make a difference, and in fact, may make things worse. Despair is as powerful a political force as hope.
The only other way that the January election may be meaningful is the re-mapping of the new government's membership to more closely match the demographic realities of Iraq. If the government can mirror Iraqi society, at least in a simple numerical sense, that may be a good thing. However, the struggle over how big a piece of the electoral pie a group wins is, as mentioned before, often the cause of further violence among groups.
The specifics of the election, therefore, are critical. It's tough to find them, even on the State Department's web site (cluttered to the point of uselessness with listings of press releases and transcripts), and it's even harder to divine how well the elections will be managed.
The election may have some impact on the war, good or bad. Or it may be a de jure moment with no de facto significance. Whatever the result, it won't be the end of the war, sad to say. We do not live in that better world I alluded to at the beginning of this post.