Iraq is set to hold parliamentary elections this March, after politicians in Baghdad overcame the squabbling and heated debates that had long delayed the controversial new election law. Iraqis will find themselves participating in a democratic process which, because of its incorporation of the open-list system (whereby people vote for individuals as opposed to parties), outmatches the elections of 2005, which adopted the closed-list system, and also outmatches the democratic standards of their regional neighbors.
The electoral process in Iraq will not be a smooth one. Violence, as ever, will decide the extent to which Iraqis will turn out to cast their votes. Recent security failures indicate that terrorists, suspected to be comprised of extremist Sunnis and jihadists, still remain at large. Their tactics have morphed to meet the challenges posed by a far more confident and assertive Iraqi security force, which can claim some credit for the overall reduction in violence; terrorists now re-group, re-equip and then, in time, strike at high value targets, such as the various ministries which suffered suicide attacks in recent months. In comparison to previous years, they strike at chance, as opposed to at will.
The terrorists’ main aim is to rekindle the ethno-sectarian violence of 2005 and 2006 that tainted Iraq in the aftermath of the United States-led invasion. But despite extremist strikes on Shiite civilian and government targets, there has yet to be reprisal attacks against Sunnis by the Shiite community, its clerical and political leaders.
Although large scale ethnic and sectarian violence is, save for certain parts of northern Iraq, a thing of the past, Iraqi politics as a whole has yet to garner the same fortunes. Politics in Iraq continue to be determined by ethnic and sectarian affiliations, and the Iraqi elections in March will exhibit this paralyzing feature of a country that continues to be a victim of its fascinatingly diverse, culturally and historically rich population.
But there is hope. Political scientists often highlight that division within majority identity groups is essential for stability in highly diverse societies. The Shiites, the majority group in Iraq, ran as a single bloc in the 2005 elections under the United Iraqi Alliance. This time, the alliance, running under the new banner of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), does not include the current Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki and his Islamic Dawa Party.
The Islamic Dawa Party instead sought to form a secular and cross-sectarian alliance that builds on the group’s electoral success in the provincial elections last January. At the time, the development suggested a new chapter in Iraqi politics — one free from the shackles of ethno-sectarian loyalties. Yet, this never came to be. Maliki failed to bring any prominent Sunnis or Kurds onboard, leaving the premier vulnerable, but nevertheless comforted by the widely held belief that the INA still comprised mainly sectarian parties who performed poorly in last January’s provincial polls. Recent terror attacks will hurt Maliki, however, given that his key campaign platform was security.
Things also look more promising for the Sunnis. The Unity of Iraq Alliance (UIA) includes the major Sunni figure Ahmed Abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Awakening forces, who commands significant respect among the Sunni population. Elsewhere, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) is led by former premier Ayad Allawi (also a Shiite) and prominent Sunni figure Salih al-Mutlaq.
The major electoral battle will be in the Shiite south. In the January 2009 provincial polls, Maliki’s coalition achieved 28.6 percent of parliamentary seats, while the INA, made up of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Sadrists, former premier Ibrahim Jafari and the Fadhila party, achieved 28.2 percent. The contest this March will therefore be a hot one, with neither of the coalitions likely to win a majority. This will embolden the Kurdish parties, but also the UIA and INM, who will be lobbied to become coalition partners.
Further splits are likely after the elections. The INA, though currently united, is essentially an alliance of convenience — bedfellows who have conflicting ideological and political visions but who recognize they fare better united than divided against Maliki’s electoral credentials. The INA’s ISCI and Sadrists have a history of violent rivalry, and the INA is made up of numerous strong personalities who have ambitions to become premier (a likely sticking point in the aftermath of the elections).
The divisions are positive only in that they make parties more susceptible to compromise on some of the key outstanding disputes: the division of power and control over the country’s vast energy resources.
The ongoing territorial and constitutional disputes will certainly continue well beyond the elections. But this is not to suggest that Iraqi democracy will be reduced as a result. To the contrary, the new open-list system means that Iraqi politicians will be more accountable; it also reduces the significance of affiliations, sectarian or otherwise, since merit rather than background becomes the route to power.
Cracks are starting to appear in the traditional political landscape of Iraq for the better of Iraqis as a whole, though the journey is still a painfully enduring one.
RANJ ALAALDIN is a scholar on Iraq and is
published regularly in The Guardian