Recently, Iraqis had their third election in a year. On the surface, this represents a great achievement for democracy, for that country and for that region. In reality, however, the national elections to establish the country's first democratically elected "full-time" government for a period of four years may change little in the short term.
Many hope that this government will offer greater credibility, both domestically and abroad, than previous interim governments and that it will facilitate greater progress, not only on national security but on economics and politics as well.
The liberation so far has been categorised by insurgency, bloodshed and controversy. This is unlikely to change overnight, and with the path to reconstruction and prosperity still unclear, many questions remain. For instance, how will more than 430 parties (most of them small and unestablished) and coalitions be brought together through the adoption of a common vision, through a sense of nationalism and common history and away from any sectarian polarisation?
Negotiations more than the formation of the interim government and the long-awaited draft of the constitution were fraught with squabbling, disagreements and discontent, owing much to the conspicuous and times fragmented ethnic mosaic in Iraq. With the difficulty of organising elections along more secular lines, voting was always likely to be cast along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Furthermore, with likely dissatisfaction over the share of the post-ballot cake, a breakdown in any temporary bonds may not merely result in diplomatic disappointment, but outright civil war, with Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites keen to regroup in order to ensure their gains are enforced. The various groups will be fuelled by the ubiquitous fear of being discriminated against and subdued by a more powerful group with control of the army and police force.
With this in mind, the real democracy left behind may be one that is predictable, offering no real choice and with major decisions perpetrated by powerful regional or sectarian leaders.
As anticipated based on previous ballot turnouts, the voting itself was yet again fairly predictable as highlighted by release of the initial electoral results. The already controversial and debated release of the final results is unlikely to affect the political picture. The three northern-most provinces that form Iraqi Kurdistan voted heavily for the Kurdish Coalition List. The southern Shiite-dominated regions in turn voted equally heavily for United Iraqi Alliance. Traditional Sunni insurgent hot spots, such as Anbar, just as expectedly voting profoundly for Sunni-dominated lists.
The manifesto of the Sunni groups was largely dominated by calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops, a drastic modification - if not denunciation - of the constitution, protection of Iraqi territorial integrity and a strong central government with an empowered partisan Iraqi army at its side.
The secular-minded Kurds, many of whom advocate outright independence, are in favour of a loose-federal structure, an expanded region that includes oil-rich Kirkuk and control of their own security, internal and foreign affairs. Many perceive the Kurds as the crucial factor that will either placate Iraq or split it apart.
The Shiites dominated parties mainly advocate the enforcement of a federated government, the imposition of a degree of Islamic law and control of oil resources and foreign affairs.
Success of a future, multi-ethnic, democratic and federal Iraqi society may trigger a ripple effect in the region, setting an example for many democracy-shy states. However, failure could be catastrophic, resulting in a loose federalism and weak government susceptible to corruption, manipulation and outside influence from neighbouring countries - if not violent secession itself.
In its dawn, it is unrealistic to expect a fully functioning democracy so soon after Saddam Hussein's downfall but, despite many challenges and shortcomings, Iraq is improving. For the United States, the voter turnout provides evidence of Iraq's liberalisation and conveys a message to terrorists that the will of the people can overcome trepidation and bloodshed. What is clear, however, is that more than just the successful staging of elections is needed for the foundation of a long-standing democratic system.
Until such a time, a call for an early US withdrawal amid the current turmoil may spell more disaster. What is needed is more than just a military exit strategy, but a more encompassing political, social and economic strategy that the Iraqis and the insurgents themselves may adhere to for their own exit.
Last, the setting of such a significant milestone must not detract opinion from reality, a raging insurgency, shortage of food and medicine and a high unemployment rate. However, having waited for decades to escape oppression, most Iraqis are willing to endure a little more delay.