The major news story of the week is the parliamentary elections in Iraq. Certainly any step toward the establishment of a democratic regime in what was previously a brutally oppressive country is to be celebrated by all people of goodwill, but even more so by people who accept the democratic political theology taught by the Book of Mormon.
At the same time that the events of this week are positive and deserve to be celebrated, the initial establishment of a democracy is in fact the easy part. Decades of social-scientific research, perhaps best represented in the book Democracy and Development by Adam Przeworski et al., has shown that democratic transitions like the one underway in Iraq occur at least occasionally in most countries throughout the world. Unfortunately, for many countries, such democratic transitions are routinely followed by authoritarian reversions.
Social scientists have identified several variables that do a fairly good job of predicting such authoritarian reversions. The major risk factors include deep ethnic division, heavy economic reliance on resource extraction, a limited history of democracy, poverty, poorly established political institutions, and location in a region of the world with few other democracies. As is evident, Iraq faces essentially all of the risk factors for authoritarian reversion. Indeed, I am unaware of even a single country in world history that has been able to maintain a democratic system in the face of such extreme obstacles. The nearest example would probably be India — but India in fact has had some advantages that Iraq lacks. India’s economy has always been less reliant on resource extraction than Iraq’s is, and may analysts argue that it departed the colonial period with much more developed political institutions than those that Iraq has today.
These differences notwithstanding, India’s example does suggest that there is a possibility that Iraq’s democracy will last. Unfortunately, there is a vast array of examples that show the very real probability that the institutions of freedom whose establishment the world celebrates this week will not survive long enough to really matter.