Watching the Democratic National Convention on TV, who can forget that, in the not-so-distant past, something was actually voted on and decided at the party conventions? Obviously, that’s no longer true. Even attending local precinct caucuses, we’re reminded of who makes the decisions–and it’s not the rank and file.

For example, in February, at my local precinct caucus, I watched in dismay as the precinct chairman sat down and, gripping all the necessary paperwork in her hands, said with grave finality, “I’m for John Kerry. He’s electable.” Immediately, all of the undecided folks and almost half of the remaining people who had already announced support for other candidates switched over to Kerry. A few were won back with subsequent persuasion, but not many.

“Aha!” I thought. “So, that’s how it’s done.” The word comes down from the top, and the hardline, faithful party members line up to do their duty. The decision’s already made months before the convention even begins in the most controlled dance of “democracy” that money, marketing, and mass media can produce.

Americans tend to think we own the patent on democracy, and the rest of the world is lagging behind us. This hubris underlies the Bush administration’s foreign policy goals, particularly in the Middle East: set up a US-style democracy in Iraq and it will spread like wildfire to other Middle Eastern nations. But that kind of thinking also gets us in trouble elsewhere in the world, as Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks about France and Germany being “The Old Europe” illustrates. (In other words, the newly democratized, newly Capitalist nations of Eastern Europe are the good guys, but those Western European nations wouldn’t know democracy if it spit in their face–as Rumsfeld would like to do, no doubt.)

In fact, democracy takes on a variety of forms around the world. Not all of them are perfect, of course, but it’s noteworthy that few nations have chosen to duplicate the American two-party system. From India, the world’s largest democracy, to the “old” nations of Western Europe, multi-party systems, instant run-off voting, coalition governments, and other features alien to the US, are the norm.

So we should be understanding of Iraqis who think that a caucus system with a few, closed, very disciplined political parties is undemocratic. In the past month, Iraqis have been bewildered and disheartened by the chaos surrounding their own efforts to hold a political convention. They are attempting to select 1,000 delegates to attend a convention to select a 100-member Iraqi Supreme Council that will oversee the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and help pave the way for elections in Iraq next January.

From the start, the selection process for the 1,000-member convention was deeply flawed. A “Preparatory Committee” was put in place, dominated by former members of the old US-appointed Governing Council, which was controlled by six key groups, most of them representing former exiles. These groups, which Iraqis derisively refer to as the “political parties” (as opposed to tribal groups, religious groups or intellectual or business associations), include Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA), Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), the Dawa Party (a conservative Shiite religious group heavily supported by George Bush & Co.), the Iran-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, which have extensive connections to the US government. In fact, five of the six parties (SCIRI is the exception) have accepted US government funding and worked with the CIA.

These six “political parties” played a key role in writing the rules for how the delegates would be selected. First, they guaranteed that all members of the Preparatory Committee would automatically have seats at the 1,000-member convention. Then they set aside 20 of the 100 seats on the new Supreme Council for representatives of the six political parties, so they wouldn’t have to worry about campaigning for public support.

Then the political parties drew up an application form for convention delegates, but did nothing to distribute it. In addition, they took no steps to publicize the application or selection process. Some districts didn’t find out that they were supposed to choose delegates until a week before the convention was supposed to start–some only had a day in which to choose their representatives–and few knew the rules or how to conduct the selection process. In the meantime, the six political parties sent out “invitations” to several prominent Iraqis to attend the 1,000-member convention. Supposedly, this ensured diversity among the delegates.

Having set aside 548 convention seats for delegates from Iraq’s 18 provinces, the six political parties then did their best to control the caucuses where those delegates were selected. For example, in Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city with a majority of Turkmen, a sizable minority of Arabs and Kurds, and a sprinkling of Christians, the two Kurdish political parties, the KDP and the PUK, told the caucus participants that they had 20 delegate positions to fill: 5 for the Kurds, 5 for the Arabs, 5 for the Christians, and 5 for the Turkmen. This produced such an uproar that the initial selection process had to be scrapped and started over from the beginning. In Basra, the Dawa Party and SCIRI shut out all the other caucus participants, which so angered the followers of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that they threatened violence against the Dawa Party and SCIRI representatives. Al-Sadr himself refused an “invitation” from the Preparatory Council to send a single representative to the convention, calling it an insult, and claiming that the process appears to be rigged. And so it is.

The refusal of al-Sadr to participate is no small thing, given that his supporters include a growing majority of poor, Shiite urban dwellers, and his militia recently fought long and bloody battles with US troops in Kerbala, Kut, Najaf, and the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Other groups have decided to boycott the elections. The Association of Muslim Scholars, the single most influential Sunni group in Iraq, has also announced it won’t participate. Smaller, secular nationalist groups are also protesting with their absence.

After promising the US that the 100-member Supreme Council would be chosen and up and running by August 1, the Iraqi government gave in to internal pressure and the urging of the UN to delay the start of the convention until mid-August. The UN has promised to help the Iraqi government in its efforts to persuade al-Sadr and the Association of Muslim Scholars to participate and bring some order to the caucus process. It’s not clear that two weeks, however, will be enough time to straighten out this mess.

What is clear, however, is that the effort to impose a US-style democracy on Iraq is encountering valid, justified, and virulent opposition. Who can fault the Iraqis for looking at such a system and complaining that it’s not a real democracy? We should listen to what they have to say and ask ourselves why we accept that same system with a shrug, a yawn, and a click of a button to change the channel.

For further reading:

“New Iraqi Government Facing Its First Big Test,” Robin Wright, Washington Post, 7/25/04, Page A15; “Iraq Conference Hits Snag Before Start,” Jamie Tarabay, Associated Press, 7/25/04; “Iraqis Scramble for Seats to Select New Council,” Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times, 7/26/04; “Key Iraqi Conference On Track To Open,” Pamela Constable, Washington Post, 7/28/04; “Threats force delay of key Iraqi congress,” Rory McCarthy, The Guardian, 7/30/04; “Deep divides halt key Iraq meeting,” Annia Ciezadlo, Christian Science Monitor, 7/30/04.