Iraqi Election

3 March 2010

Iraqi Election

By Gwynne Dyer

There are some bombs going off, but apart from that the election in Iraq on 7 March is a model of its kind. There are more than 6,000 candidates for the 352 seats in parliament, and the country is flooded with foreign observers who will monitor the process. Unlike last time, no major group is boycotting the election – and nobody knows who is going to win it.

Iraq has come a long way since the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2005-07, when 3,000 murdered people were being found in Baghdad each month. True, the most violent elements could just be waiting until all the Americans leave next year to start the fighting again, but it’s unlikely that they would let this election unfold smoothly if they had the power to disrupt it. And the more credible the election, the greater the legitimacy of the resulting government.

It could be literally a new government, in the sense that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would no longer be running it. Maliki’s personal popularity among more “nationalist” Shias (i.e. less sectarian ones) is undiminished, and his “State of Law” alliance leads in the opinion polls, with a predicted 30 percent of the seats in the new parliament. But 30 percent is not a majority.

To form a new government, Maliki’s party will need the support of either the secular nationalists of former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement, now at 22 percent in the polls, or of the conservative Shia religious party, the Iraqi National Alliance, which has 17 percent. They have both said that they will not accept Maliki as prime minister in any coalition government they join, and they may actually mean it.

Maliki would doubtless prefer to recreate the existing coalition with the Kurdish parties, but that arithmetic probably doesn’t work any more. Kurds are 20 percent of Iraq’s population, and when they all voted for the two traditional Kurdish parties (which cooperated at the national level), they were the king-makers of Iraqi politics. The recent rise of the reforming Goran (Change) party, however desirable in itself, destroys that Kurdish unity.

But how nice it is to make such boring, routine calculations about the outcome of an Iraqi election! It’s almost as if the place had become a normal country again, and a democratic one at that. Iraqis certainly deserve such a happy ending after all the horrors they have been through. Are they are really going to get one?

Al-Qaeda, which gained a foothold among the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, retains the ability to commit atrocities like the suicide bombings that killed 32 people in Baquba on Wednesday, but it is now only a marginal force among the Sunnis. The question is really whether the rest of the community has accepted its minority status and decided to make the best of it.

The alienation of the Sunnis is very great. They dominated Iraqi politics for centuries, and ten years ago most did not even realise that the Shias outnumbered them three-to-one. The US invasion drove them from power, they bore the brunt of the fight against the US occupation, and then they were dragged into a war against the Shias by the al-Qaeda fanatics.

In the course of that war most mixed neighbourhoods in Baghdad were “cleansed” of their Sunni population, and the city is now overwhelmingly Shia. A very large proportion of the two million Iraqi refugees abroad and the two million internally displaced people are Sunnis. Even in this election, the Shia-dominated “de-Baathification” committee disqualified a number of prominent Sunni candidates from running.

Yet most Sunnis will be voting this time, rather than boycotting the election as they did in 2005. In retrospect the Sunni community sees that as a grave error, as they had almost no influence on central government policy between then and now. They are now willing at least to try to live within the new reality of minority status in a country where religion plays a far larger role than previously.

The threat of an Arab-Kurdish civil war over the disputed city of Kirkuk is also in decline, despite the importance to the Kurds of its surrounding oil-fields. The new Goran party takes a more conciliatory approach to the Arabic-speaking minority in that city, most of whom were settled there decades ago as part of Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation programme. It does not control the Kurdistan Regional Government, but it is certainly a moderating influence.

It’s a bit early to see Iraq as a kind of Middle Eastern Belgium, with as many bitter internal divisions as that deeply divided country but also its enduring commitment to democracy. (One parallel, however, is a given: it will probably take as incredibly long to form a coalition government after this election as it does in Belgium.)

The wounds in Iraq are very fresh, and its democracy is still new and fragile. But after the decades of oppression, the hundreds of thousands killed since 2003, the millions more turned into refugees, and the steep fall in the status of women, it would be nice if Iraq had something positive to show for its long ordeal. We’ll know by 2020.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Maliki…unity”; and “The threat…influence”)