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America wants democracy and freedom for Iraq, but doesn’t want to impose the American system on Iraq or the rest of the Middle East. Fortunately, we don’t have to. The best way to establish democracy as a form of government may be through democratic devices themselves, such as direct and frequent consultation with the Iraqi people starting early in the postwar transition. And the best final system, though this is a matter for the Iraqis themselves to decide, may take many of its parts, and some of its animating spirit, not from the United States but from other democratic nations. Picture a country rent by divisions of religion, language, and, to an extent, ethnicity. A country that is not wealthy, indeed of moderate income because of its recent troubles, but rich in human capital. A country that is a natural trading crossroads, but has been hampered by tariff wars, high taxes, and bouts of strong centralization under a dictator alternating with very divisive forms of federalism. A country threatened by various Western powers for hundreds of years, and occupied by one of them for more than a decade. A country that, in some respects, does not exist. This description could apply to a number of countries today, but it also applied, in the year 1848, to Switzerland — as Alexis de Tocqueville described it in a report to the French parliament. Today we know Switzerland as a miracle of human capital and social cohesion and ingenuity. In 1848, when it created its modern constitution, Switzerland had just suffered a civil war amidst the revolutions of Europe. It was in the bottom half, not at the top, of Western European output per capita, “a paralyzed limb” on the body of Europe (as one contemporary observer put it). How did Switzerland emerge from this sorry state of affairs to become a model political economy today? There were many factors, but the most important was the construction of a uniquely direct and decentralized democracy. When Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Switzerland in 1798, he made the initial mistake of attempting to impose a constitution on the country. Even though his design was democratic and, in many respects, highly advanced, the Swiss rejected it. After several years of unrest, Napoleon had his aides collaborate with the Swiss in crafting a new design and then wisely put the matter to a vote. The Swiss approved the new constitution, and the remainder of the French occupation was relatively tranquil. That experience, and the Swiss tradition (in many cantons) of “referring” questions directly to the voters, led to a growing reliance on citizen participation in the 19th century. From the 1830s onward, many of the communes and cantons of Switzerland held regular popular votes on legislation, a practice expanded in the 1870s with the advent of referendums at the federal level, and in the 1890s with establishment of a federal initiative process, which to this day allows the citizens themselves to write new laws and constitutional provisions. Now the United States and other coalition partners can learn from the successful Swiss experience as we attempt to nurture democratic institutions in Iraq. FIRST STEPS In the short term, one of the skeptics’ concerns is that the Iraqi people have little experience with democracy. Indeed, they do not. Yet direct democracy can give them that experience — almost immediately — and allow a growing measure of participation on questions of current administration and ultimate government creation. At the moment, Iraq does not have a highly developed system of political parties, a free press, and other critical institutions. One way of building democracy is to wait for all those things to form before giving people a voice. But it may make more sense to give people a voice now and allow them to form such institutions as they exercise that voice — in effect, a “rolling start” that creates democracy on the move. America didn’t have political parties to speak of in 1776 or, for that matter, in 1789, when our constitution was formed. Conducting an ongoing series of consultative referendums, on matters ranging from the structure of interim governance to the ownership and administration of Iraq’s oil, would have its dangers. Then again, there are dangers in not consulting the Iraqi people. Consider the alternatives. One is for the United States to anoint, however indirectly, a set of Iraqi leaders who are presumed to have legitimacy with the masses. Another is for the United States, in whatever combination with coalition partners and the United Nations, to administer matters and oversee the process itself. At some point — weeks, months, years from now — the Iraqis are going to have to be given the freedom to rule on a new constitution themselves. It might make sense to give them a lot of practice walking and running first, before the country has to fly. IMPERIAL NOTHING In the longer term as well, Switzerland’s remarkable political-social achievement carries important lessons. Of course, these are lessons not for American overlords, but for Iraqi constitution-writers, to apply. One may hope, however, that the Iraqis look beyond the U.S. system for additional models of governance and that American statesmen are both humble and wise enough to encourage them. One major concern for both the United States and the Iraqis themselves, for example, is the selection of Iraq’s new president. (This is a problem for a number of emerging or would-be democracies, from Venezuela and Argentina to Nigeria, Cyprus, Palestine, Burma, even Mainland China.) How do we make sure that the next person to occupy this powerful position isn’t another Saddam Hussein? One way to do this — which, unfortunately, seems to have escaped many constitution-writers in recent years — is simply not to create such a singular position in the first place. Switzerland’s executive is a seven-member board, chairmanship of which rotates annually — what amounts to one-year presidential terms combined with long-term Cabinet membership. Such a model might create vast problems for a country like the United States, which has global power and worldwide security responsibilities. It is an excellent fit, however, for a country like Switzerland, which is militarily unambitious and neutral. Isn’t the latter something to be encouraged for Iraq? A similar lack of centralized power and elitism permeates such Swiss institutions as the parliament and the supreme court. Both are much less powerful than their U.S. counterparts, with lower barriers to entry and a higher turnover rate — but without term limits or other artificial restraints on the voters. PRIDE IN POLITICS If Iraq were to adopt this kind of highly decentralized system, would there be anything to hold the nation together? Here is where Switzerland offers perhaps its most valuable lesson. Thanks to the pervasiveness of direct democracy at all levels, Switzerland is, in fact, one of the most unified and patriotic countries in the world. By participating directly in making their laws and even their constitution, the Swiss feel a sense of ownership of both their government and many of the particular decisions it makes. Asked an open-ended question about their reasons for pride in being Swiss, a majority give an answer that has something to do with pride in the political system. How many other countries are there where politics is such a positive word? The lesson for Iraq and its friends is that national unity can be promoted without an imperial federal legislature, supreme court, or presidency. And there can be checks and balances on one powerful elite body that don’t come from other powerful elite bodies. A government can rely on the people. The most important result of the Swiss system is a subtly different espirit de lois. This is difficult to summarize, but visible to all who have studied the Swiss system. It is captured in various statistics. For example, the Swiss are the most voracious consumers of newspapers in the world. Why? Because every Swiss citizen is, in a sense, a member of the parliament, voting up to several times a year on federal laws and, in a typical canton, several more times on statewide resolutions. Another illustration: Despite its wealth, Switzerland has almost no professional lobbying firms, and spending more than $100,000 on a parliamentary campaign would be considered grotesque. Yet there are no electoral spending limits and no stringent restrictions on lobbying. The Swiss spend little on selecting and influencing elected legislators because to change the law, you really have to lobby all the people. And that also means that every penny spent on “lobbying” is, in effect, a penny spent on educating the citizens. What an advantage such a dynamic would pose for Iraq, which needs to build its democratic muscles and nurture nascent party and press institutions. LEARNING DEMOCRACY Many observers wonder whether Iraq is “ready” for a system that seems to require such advanced citizenship. This is the wrong way to look at the problem. Switzerland didn’t adopt direct democracy in the 19th century because its citizens were highly advanced. Its citizens became highly advanced because the country adopted direct democracy. Countries like Iraq, with religious, ethnic, economic, and other divisions, need some federalizing institution that helps create national unity at the popular level. For the Iraqi people to responsibly exercise sovereignty, they must commit acts of sovereignty. This was exactly the observation that Tocqueville made more than 150 years ago, when he wondered if the divided Swiss people would ever be able to build a nation. Should the United States, then, impose not its own system but the Swiss one? No, we should not impose anything. The people of Iraq, as nearly every administration spokesman from President George W. Bush on down has said, should form their own institutions. But if we are going to trust the people of Iraq, why not trust the people of Iraq? In the end, all the best arguments for a system of direct democracy, both as a final design and as a development tool, wind up being the same as the arguments for democracy itself. Gregory A. Fossedal, chairman of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, is the author of several books on comparative politics and development policy, including Direct Democracy in Switzerland (Transaction Publishers, 2002) and The Democratic Imperative (New Republic Books, 1989).

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