In these provincial elections, sectarian and ethnic tensions will largely be resolved not by violence, but by the ballot box
Tomorrow, 31 January 2009, millions of Iraqis will vote in elections that will select governing councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces and play a critical role in determining the next direction the country takes. The electoral atmosphere is electric. Ordinary Iraqis find themselves part of an election frenzy that will culminate in a voting turnout that should eclipse those of previous elections.
The elections could make a catalytic change to the political makeup of the country. They will set the stage for the national elections in December and lead to the formation of new alliances. They will be a battle between religion and secularism, nationalism and federalism, status quo and change. They will also affect the fate of US troops in the country. Those troops are this time stepping back to put to the test the Iraqi security forces' ability to independently oversee the elections.
Traditional political powers will be put in the dock by the electorate, who will decide whether they still merit their place in power. Better security means that services, not protection, are now the paramount concern for the general population. A more politically and democratically aware Iraqi electorate may well decide to voice their disenchantment at the polls.
The Sunnis will participate in great numbers, in contrast to their decision to boycott the previous local elections. One victim of this development is vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). The IIP is expected to lose ground in the provinces they control and become marginalised by new political groups, including the Sunni tribes. These groups made up the famous Awakening movements which brought stability to post-2003 no-go terrorist areas such as the al-Anbar province. Previously anti-US armed bandits, they have made a remarkable transition to a respectable political force.
Heralded for their security achievements, the Awakening fronts are, however, less experienced and organised than the IIP. Instead, the new but certainly not inexperienced Abn'a al-Rafadain (Sons of the Two Rivers) party, led by former deputy prime minister Salam al-Zubaie, will attract much of the Sunni vote. The party is secular, nationalistic, and it has the support of tribal leaders. It has the competitive edge to capitalise on the waning power of the IIP and re-assert the Sunni presence in Sunni-dominated provinces and others.
The message is clear and simple: the Sunnis are back and ready to take power. This is markedly the case in Ninewah province where the Sunnis, rather than the Kurds, would have control but for their boycott of the 2005 elections. It is a disputed region, troubled by Arab-Kurd tensions, and its provincial capital Mosul is still among the most dangerous of cities in the country. This time round, the Sunnis have amalgamated under one list with one agenda – get the Kurds out. The al-Hadba list is anti-Kurdish, anti-US, and led by senior Baath figures currently in exile. They will win the Ninewah elections.
Whatever the results, one certainty is that the elections will usher in a powerful Sunni bloc. Prosperous Sunni parties will find themselves inundated with requests for strategic alliances, in anticipation of the national elections in December.
Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa party, heading a coalition made up of other small parties, may well impress thanks to its anti-federalist and nationalist stance. The party has linked itself with successful security operations, including one in Basra where Dawa is expected to match, if not outperform Iraq's largest Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI).
Dawa, however, has had sour relations with ISCI and the Kurdistan Alliance. Both parties have federalist ambitions, the former seeking to establish a self-ruled Shia region in the south. They will not be supporting a Maliki premiership after the national elections.
The prime minister may therefore use his anti-federalist and nationalist stance to form a coalition with other like-minded actors – which may include any strong members of the new Sunni bloc that emerges from the elections, and perhaps unlikely bedfellows such as the Sadrists. The Sadrists, running as independent candidates, will not make any notable gains but are expected to regain control of Maysan province.
There is unlikely to be a dramatic shift in power. The major political players, such as ISCI, are too well funded and organised. One flawed perception is that voters have become disillusioned with the religious parties and as a result Islamic parties are running under different banners (Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party is, for example, running as the State of Law coalition).
The Sunni vote will be secular and will go to the Abn'a al-Rafadain party and the Sunni Awakening fronts. But ISCI will be impervious to the secular vote: it is the strongest party, has the passive support of Ayatollah Sistani and, among Iraq's Shias, religion generally comes before nationality. In other areas, particularly Baghdad, the secular vote is likely to dominate. Here, it remains to be seen whether Maliki's credentials and recent popularity will transform into votes, while Ayad Allawi's secular National Accord Front is also one to watch out for.
Of great interest to many is the results' impact on the future of US troops in the country. The recently passed Status of Forces agreement (SOFA), which calls on US troops to leave Iraqi cities by June 2009 and be out of the country by 2011, still has to be ratified by the Iraqis in a referendum to be held in the summer. The Kurds and the Shias should carry the referendum. One remote possibility, however, is that the Shias may not come out and vote in force – the Kurds are pro-SOFA under any circumstances – in which case it will be left to the Sunnis to determine the outcome. Should the anti-SOFA elements do well in the elections, including the IIP and al-Hadba (the former accepted SOFA only after the inclusion of a referendum) then the pro-SOFA elements of the bloc out of strategic necessity may well follow suit and dramatically undermine the agreement.
Despite such expectations, the run-up to the elections has been peaceful. There has been violence unrelated to the elections, mainly in areas where tensions have been ongoing since 2003. With more than 14,000 candidates competing for only 440 seats, the aftermath may turn uglier; there will inevitably be bad losers who will seek reparation through other means, while claims of fraud and intimidation will undoubtedly be made. There are also significant numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been unable to vote: just 100,000 IDPs out of an estimated total of 2.8 million will be able to vote.
Although the elections will this time round be a more respectable affair owing to improved security, greater Sunni participation and voter awareness of the democratic process, democracy in Iraq has not yet reached its full potential. The important thing is that, although sectarian and ethnic tensions still persist, these old scores, along with the political agendas of the various parties, are to a great degree being settled at the ballot polls rather than on the battlefield. Democracy has been instilled in Iraq and to a great extent is prevailing over violent radicalism. Nevertheless, Iraq's Achilles' heel is still its disputed territories. Left unresolved, they will perpetuate ethnic and sectarian tensions, while slowly dragging the country into an irreversible decline.