Saturday, June 26, 2010

Interview with Iraqi Newsweekly GULAN

An "interview" with the Iraqi/Kurd newsweekly GULAN, and Ferhad M. Hassan, editor in chief. His questions in italics, my answers in Roman....The subject is the transition to democracy in Iraq and Kurdistan.

1- In the transitional stage, everything in the society is facing changes. So, we would like to ask you, how do you define post dictatorship transitional stage and what are the necessary steps required to be taken?

We have learned a lot about the problem of transition. The hardest problem is to reform the legal system, to ensure that judges, police, and public officials are fair in enforcing the law, and that the law applies equally to everyone.

Until this happens, the political transition cannot be fully effective, or complete. So the problem of the transitional stage is that the voters do not yet fully trust the government, or the police. And so they may not be willing to pay their taxes without close scrutiny. But that means that the government cannot pay the police, and judges, and so the system is always on the verge of running out of money.

Many scholars and professors in the U.S. have concluded that having a strong system of honest judges must come BEFORE a strong democracy.

2- As many experts think that transitional stage is not an easy step and takes many years. Is there any measurement to determine the end of the transitional stage?

In the U.S., it took a full decade, from 1791 through 1801. Even then, there were lots of problems. The key factor in proving the transition is complete is when an opposition party is able to run against the governing group, and win in a fair election. And then the defeated governing party hands over power voluntarily. Elections are "peaceful revolutions," where the outside group defeats the ruling group, and takes over the government, without war or bloodshed.

So, two things have to happen: 1. A free and fair election where the ruling party loses, and 2. A peaceful transition of power, accepted by all people (including the Army) as being legitimate.

3- The most important element in the transitional stage for building democracy is the political parties. Especially the countries which have been under dictatorship. So, the political parties to a certain extend are revolutionary not democratic. So, once the political parties need to be democratized first, how can they produce democracy?

Parties ARE revolutionary, yes. But democracy ensure peaceful revolutions. That is what elections are: peaceful revolutions. And parties are crucial for this. Imagine that there was to be a soccer match between "11 guys" and "Another 11 guys." No one cares about watching that. But if the "Party I Love" is going against the "Party I Don't Like", then I will go to the soccer match, or I will turn out for the election.

Experts on democracy nearly universally say that democracy is impossible without parties. Only parties can create a sense of connection with voters, and create a repuation that keeps government accountable, for success or failure.

4- Developing and implementation of economy market is another aspect of the transitional stage. But, many experts think that, transition from central economy to independent economy may result in corruption. So, how to avoid and prevent corruption in the transitional stage?

Again, the problem is fair judges and police. Also, having a market economy creates a middle class, a countervailing power that helps keep government accountable.

The problem faced by Iraq is that it has great oil wealth, and this wealth is a temptation for corruption. The oil wealth of the country means that politicians are tempted to promise cheap gas, and low taxes. Corruption results when people can make more money from misusing public office than they can from using private enterprise honestly. If a man starts a restaurant, he makes money by providing good food at low prices. If a man becomes a corrupt policeman, he makes money by stealing from drivers at checkpoints and by threatening people. Corruption is MUCH more likely in a planned economy, because people pay bribes to the center for favorable treatment.

5- Another important aspect of the transitional stage is the role of free mass media and intellectuals of the society. So, how far free mass media and intellectuals can play an effective role in the transitional stage?

The media and intellectuals must try to do two things. 1. Educate the public on the process of transition, and warn that it may take ten years, and 2. Report on corrupt practices, and violations of the law, even when it embarrasses the government. The problem is that the media cannot be truly "free" until it can carry out this function without fear of government reprisal and repression. This is the key to transition: when a newspaper or television person can write or say something critical of the government without fear. If there is fear, then the media, or intellectuals, cannot carry out their function. Even uncertainty about government response can have a "chilling effect," causing media and intellectuals to censor themselves.

6- Religion and politicization of religion is another aspect for building of obstacles in the transitional stage. So, how far the Islamic political parties are reasons for the backward situations in the eastern and Islamic societies?

The problem is not religion, the problem is religious intolerance. There are many "Islams" and many kinds of believers. An insistence that each citizen can live as he chooses is the guarantee of religious freedom for all.

So, the problem is not Islam, but rather demagogues and authoritarian leaders who try to use Islam as a way to get power over other people. This can only happen if voters allow it. Voters have to vote for leaders who vow to protect the freedom to practice Islam, not leaders who say they will impose one particular narrow view of Islam on everyone.

7- How success in the transitional stage is evaluated? And, what are the conditions that should be taking into consideration in deciding whether transitional stage is passed or not?

If people trust their police, and trust that judges will treat them fairly, and pay their taxes voluntarily, then democracy has begun.

If in addition the ruling party loses an election, and hands over power peacefully, then the transition is complete.