The multiple challenges of the Iraqi elections

This Sunday, March 7, 19 million Iraqi voters are called to the polls for parliamentary elections where the challenges are numerous. The recent eviction of 500 Sunni candidates, suspected of being linked to the Baath party, threatens the country’s unity ambitions. The results of these elections are crucial for the future of Iraq. The risks of violence around the elections are high. An attack with the mark of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has already hit yesterday a polling station opened prematurely for the persons in charge of the security this weekend: toll, 27 soldiers killed (In Iraq, Early Voting Is marred by AttacksNY Times, 4/3/2010).

Security is one thing but the main issue in these elections is undoubtedly the national unity. After several years of boycotting politics, the Sunni community had already come to the polls for the provincial election last January. These elections were also marked by the weakening of Islamist or sectarian votes (see MEDEA’s Edito of 6/2/2009). But the decision last January to prohibit some 500 Sunni figures to appear on the electoral lists could have ruined all hopes (Irak : 500 partis et personnalités exclus des listes électoralesLe Monde, 14/1/2010). But no appeal to the Sunni boycott has yet been launched and the vote of this community should on the contrary be decisive in the outcome of elections.

The trend is to pluralism, and the main concern of the coalition blocks is to gather Shiites and Sunnis on their lists. One of the favorites, the Iraqi National Movement is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite joined by figures and Sunni coalitions. This movement intends to recover the Sunni votes from the Iraqi Accord Front which gathered so far most of the Sunni vote. The election’s outcome is paradoxically in the hands of Sunnis. The question now is whether they will unite their votes to weigh in the balance, or they will divide and then loose influence (Sunnis and Iraq’s Elections: An Evolving Balance of PowerArab Reform Bulletin, 24/2/2010). If the vote of each other’s remains denominational the referred national unity project will be difficult to achieve.

The parties of the coalition in power since 2005, the United Iraqi Alliance – now divided into three movements – led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki, also seem to have been defeated according to the polls. Is it due to not being able to gather enough Sunni votes or because they are subject of too many prosecutions for corruption? The corruption of the Iraqi establishment is indeed one of the leitmotifs of the opposition. According to Transparency International, Iraq ranked among the third most corrupt countries in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and among the fourth in 2009. Even the Shiites are turning away from a government that failed to meet their expectations during the last legislature (Iraq’s Quest for Democracy amid Massive Corruption, Arab Reform Bulletin, 3/3/2010).

Comments finally stress the regional implications of Sunday’s election. Indeed the United States and Iran have accused each other of interfering in the Iraqi campaign. Tehran accuses Washington of trying to push the Baathists to counterbalance the growing Shiite power, while Washington is afraid of an increasing influence of Iran once the U.S. troops will withdraw from Iraq. In this perspective, the Iraqi elections will be crucial in determining how the Obama administration will address the Iranian issue (Head to HeadAl Ahram weekly, 25/2-3/3/2010). On the other hand, Ayad Allawi from the Iraqi National Movement, met leaders of several neighboring capitals, and underlined the mediating role his possible future government could play between Shiites and Sunnis in the region (Iraqi Elections and Prospective Government ScenariosArab Reform Bulletin, 3/3/2010).

Combining challenges of national unity and regional stability, the parliamentary elections of 7 March are definitely a decisive milestone in the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée