Iraq’s provincial elections: A test of fragile calm


Baghdad : As voters prepare to go to the polls Jan 31, Iraq stands balanced on a knife-edge as the streets are safer now than they have been at any time since the country slid into civil war in 2005.

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When Iraqis vote in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces to choose the provincial councils that will govern them, the country could make a great step forward in drawing a line under the recent years of bloodshed. Or, many Iraqis say, if the polls are viewed as unfair, the country could tip back into carnage and chaos.

A staggering 14,500 candidates are competing for 440 positions, with an average of 33 candidates per post – a reflection, perhaps, of the importance Iraqis assign to these elections and of improved security in the country.

But the sheer number of candidates and the complexity of the ballot presents special challenges as voters are allowed to choose party lists, individual candidates, and to select ethnic-minority candidates based on a quota system,

“The ballot will be the size of a coffee table,” said one western election observer on condition of anonymity. “Voters will get a booklet with their ballot to explain how it works.”

In contrast to the 2005 polls, when many Sunni parties boycotted the polls and security conditions were such that election workers couldn’t get voting machines to many predominantly Sunni areas, most Sunni parties will participate this time around.

“Some resistance groups are still calling for a boycott,” said Nabil Mohammed Salim, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “But if this is a clean election, many of these people will change their minds.”

Particularly in ethnically mixed provinces like Nineveh or Diyala, increased Sunni participation could present problems.

In some cases violence has already returned. On Jan 18, a suicide bomber killed Hassan Zaidan al-Lihaibi, campaign manager for the second-largest Sunni party in Nineveh and Salah al-Din provinces, at his home south of Mosul.

One day earlier, gunmen had killed Hashim al-Husseini, a candidate from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Daawa Party as he campaigned south of Baghdad.

The assassinations followed threats and attacks by armed groups in Nineveh and Diyala ahead of the election.

In Diyala, Kurds and other ethnic-minority voters say they have been targeted by Sunni armed groups in the run-up to the election. In Nineveh province, last November, some 10,000 Christians fled their homes following a string of 15 murders over the space of two weeks.

In these demographically mixed provinces, the votes of minority groups such as Christians or Yazidis could tip the balance.

Iraqi rights groups will also be closely watching the results to see how women fare. Changes to this year’s election law removed explicit quotas in favour of more vague language that could be read as either increasing or decreasing the quota of women on the provincial councils. But across the country, many Iraqi women are actively campaigning.

“I spend many hours in the Baghdad streets discussing my programme with people in freedom and transparency. In order to reach my goal I do not leave space for fear,” said Nidal al-Saady, a 49-year-old teacher and mother of five.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s group, which boycotted the 2005 polls but forms an essential part of the coalition that brought Prime Minister al-Maliki to power, will not participate as a party again this year, but Sadrists say they will endorse individual candidates.

“We are staying away from the elections as we did in 2005 because of our general distrust of the current political process under the regime established by the American invasion,” Asmaa al-Mosawy, a member of the Sadrist movement from Baghdad, said.

“But we will be supporting individual candidates who seem to have the ability to serve the Iraqi people and whose aspirations match the goals of the Sadrist movement,” he explained.

Many Iraqis say religious parties have been tarnished by the temptations of power over the past three years, a sentiment which could explain why a recent poll by Baghdad’s al-Sabah newspaper showed secular parties leading among voters in 10 Iraqi cities, with 27 percent of the vote.

“Islamic powers in Iraq used religion only as a cover. Now they have been exposed before the voters,” said secularist Iraqi MP Taha al-Lahibi.

Partisans from all sides will be watching the elections closely for any hint of fraud or interference from the Iraqi Army, which will be providing security for the majority of polling places for the first time.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised voters that “the elections will draw the new face of Iraq”, and has promised to “punish all frauds and manipulators”.

It is vital that the government do a credible job on this score, Baghdad University’s political analyst Salim stressed.

“If the army acts like a sectarian militia, if the elections bring back the same, discredited people, or if the parties do not accept the results, the resistance groups may return to violence.”