Provincial elections in Iraq

Press review – week from February 2 to 6, 2009

Last Saturday the Iraqi provincial elections took place. In 2005, the last elections had been marked by outbreaks of violence. This year, to many analysts it has been a « successful test » for the new Iraqi democracy.

For Le Figaro, the elections constituted a « viability test » of the emerging Iraqi model. This election is a milestone for Iraq and contrasts with the previous provincial elections in January 2005 that were boycotted in their vast majority by Sunni Arabs and some Shi’ites. The result of this boycott was to give the bulk of power to Shiite parties returned from exile, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Dawa’s current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as well as to the Kurds who have been propelled to the head of the State by the new U.S. protectorate.The stakes of this election go beyond the strictly provincial frame, said Le Figaro. The Iraqi constitution was amended in 2005. To convince the Sunnis – exasperated by the end of their historical domination- to participate in the new institutions, a greater political and fiscal autonomy has been given to Iraqi provinces. Each governorate is now assigned, depending on its population size, a part of the federal budget and will be responsible of much of its use. These elections were not held in the three Kurdish provinces, Irbil, Dohuk and Souleimaniya, which are de facto autonomous. This calendar shift marked a new stage in the slow march towards the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.
After the elections, Middle East experts Antoine Sfeir and Christian Chesnot, authors of « The East and the West: a shock? The fatal deadlock », comment on the Iraqi elections in the middle- eastern context, in La Libre Belgique. A. Sfeir said that civil society in the Middle East is witnessing a « hunger for secularism », what C. Chesnot confirmed, basing his analysis on the results of the Iraqi elections where the lists of religious parties have lost much, while the  secular lists improved. “The example of Iraq is essential, stresses A. Sfeir. Everyone expected that after Bush’s maelstrom, the Islamists, especially the Shiites of Moqtada Sadr, would gain importance while they suffered a terrible slap.” Finally, for C. Chesnot, if secularism remains a « wishful thinking » in the Middle East, respect for international law, would be easier to achieve. « this non-application of international law encourages extremism. When you go to the Middle East, people are not necessarily “anti- west” but are opposed to « double standards » explains C. Chesnot.

For Le Figaro, these elections represent a victory for the Iraqi Prime Minister: the “Coalition for the rule of law » headed by Nouri al-Maliki dominates with 38% of the votes, far ahead from the others which achieve at their best 9%, announced on Thursday the administrative director of the Central Election Commission. The Prime Minister has based his campaign on secular speeches on security and called for national unity. « Maliki is in a stronger position than before. He and no one else will determine future alliances, « said Tarek al-Maamouuri, an Iraqi political analyst.

The Arab Reform Bulletin stresses that the « wag the dog » theory has dominated the campaign in Iraq. Referring to the American movie « wag the dog », released in 1997, this “Wag the Dog” theory presupposes that leaders manufacture wars abroad to divert their people from some domestic problems. The science behind this theory comes from work by Georg Simmel and Lewis Coser, whose hypothesis contends that “in-group” cohesion is achieved by demonizing an “out-group.” This strategy was widely used in Iraq: in 2005, the then Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had accused Syria and Iran of being responsible for the violence in Iraq. This time, Nuri al-Maliki has targeted Saudi Arabia as disruptive. From his side, Moqtada al-Sadr held the United States as responsible for the troubles in Iraq, which he assimilated to Prime Minister Al-Maliki. According to the New York Times, this strategy seemed necessary to these leaders because of polls showing a preference of the population for the non-religious parties.

The Turkish daily Hurriyet highlights the satisfaction of B. Obama concerning the conduct and results of the Iraqi elections. The UN special representative Staffan de Mistura described the vote as « historic. » Even if it has not been absent, violence during the scrutiny has been relatively weak. « Al-Maliki ended the reign of terror » said one resident of Basra.

Only one negative side, given among a large majority of articles in the international press which praises the success of the election, the Jordan Times reports that complaints of election fraud have been filed in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar. The Iraqi MP Rafaa Al Issawi requested the recount of the ballots and to bring to justice the people who committed fraud. If assumptions of irregularities have been frequent in the ballot, the case of Anbar has sparked a wave of violence between the tribes and led to retaliation threats. The Iraqi Islamic Party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and led by Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi was pointed to this fraud. The party had taken control of two of the three Sunni provinces-Anbar and Salaheddin – in the 2005 elections. However, the Islamic Party heads the commission which verifies the validity of the ballot.

If these elections suggest the possibility of a democratic and peaceful future Iraq and give Al-Maliki the legitimacy that was previously lacking, it is nevertheless important not to forget about the several challenges the country is facing.