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Iraq's elections - between opportunities and challenges

Commentary, 17 March 2010
Middle East and North Africa
The importance of Iraq's national elections on 7 March cannot be over-estimated. While the ballots continue to be counted and discussions of possible alliances to form Iraq's next government ensue, it is pertinent to assess the electoral process itself and the next political stage of Iraq's infant democracy.

The importance of Iraq's national elections on 7 March cannot be over-estimated. While the ballots continue to be counted and discussions of possible alliances to form Iraq's next government ensue, it is pertinent to assess the electoral process itself and the next political stage of Iraq's infant democracy.

By Mina Al-Oraibi, for

Iraqi voter

According to Iraq's Independent Higher Electoral Commission, IHEC, 62.5 per cent of 19 million eligible voters cast their votes and thus reaffirmed their belief in the political system. There had been initial concerns amongst many observers that turnout would be less than 50 per cent - which would have posed a serious problem of legitimacy for the coming government and for the political system that has developed since 2003. Even though it is flawed and has failed to meet the basic needs of the people, Iraqis continue to endorse this process as a rejection of both violence and dictatorship.

Election success?

Although 62.5 per cent is a reduction from the over 75 per cent of Iraqi eligible voters who took part in the 2005 vote, it is still a clear majority. Moreover, many voters, said to be in the tens of thousands, who did turn out to vote could not cast their ballots due to problems in registration and identity cards. Iraqis once more braved threats of bombings, intimidation and difficulties of travel, in large part due to the vehicle curfew imposed for the greater part of the day. And while there were attacks on voters and polling stations, leading to forty deaths on voting day, fears of wide-spread violence were not realised. Moreover, Iraqi security forces took the lead in securing the voting centres, a significant vote of confidence in Iraq's national forces. Even Iraqis abroad travelled long distances to get to polling stations in the sixteen countries that hosted out-of-country voting. With 6200 candidates and dozens of parties competing in heated electoral campaigns, it is clear that political dynamism continues to capture the imagination and interest of Iraqis.

While this positive reading of the events around the elections means there is room for optimism, there is also much to be concerned about. Accusations of corruption and pandering to outside powers continue to plague the main political parties in Iraq, while fraud and irregularities in the latest elections pose a threat to confidence in the results. The electoral process itself was flawed even before the casting of the ballots. There are many examples of this - the ongoing fiasco of De-baathification, re-emerging under Ahmad Al-Chalabi's lead;the outlawing of current Members of Parliament from running in the elections; or the indecisiveness over allowing Iraqis abroad to vote, which meant that Out of Country voting was rushed and unorganised in many instances.  Furthermore, the delay in announcing the election results has left the door open to more people questioning IHEC's work, if not accusing some of its officials of having a hand in the irregularities then at least criticising the length of time it has taken to count the ballots. One key problem that emerged during the frantic hours of voting was the need for each voter to prove which province he or she is from. Unlike the previous elections of 2005, Iraq was no longer considered one whole constituency, rather eighteen provinces, meaning voters now had to choose their local representatives While special procedures were put in place for internally displaced people, many voters did not have the relevant documents to prove whatprovince they were from or were unable to travel to that province to vote in its polling centres.

The influence of others

Beyond the details of the voting procedure itself, and the delayed announcement of election results, there are wider concerns about the expected delay in forming Iraq's next government. Political discussions by the main contenders continue in Iraq, while the actual make up of the 325-seat parliament is not yet known. However, what is clear is that new alliances are developing and a greater sense of what will constitute the governing bloc and the opposition is growing. According to initial results, announced a week after the elections took place, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition is leading in six out of Iraq's eighteen provinces, closely followed by the former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya who is leading in five provinces. The two have emerged as prime competitors, while other prominent coalitions like the Iraqi National Alliance led by the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), leading in four provinces in the south, and the Kurdish alliance, leading in three northern provinces, are hedging their bets and keeping channels of communication open with all parties to secure their place in the coming government. There is concern that deals struck behind closed doors will not reflect the promises candidates made during the electoral campaign. While repeating the mistake of handing out ministerial posts based on ethnic and sectarian grounds rather than competence will mean that the failure to deliver basic services, like electricity and clean water, over the last seven years will continue.

As far as the election results and the formation of a new government are of paramount importance to Iraq, they are also being closely watched by neighbouring countries and beyond. Allawi and his allies, like Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi, made a point of reaching out to Iraq's Arab neighbours in the run up to the elections.  For instance, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia received Allawi in Riyadh, while in Damascus President Assad of Syria met Al-Hashami. The clear message of both Iraqi officials was that they would work at bringing better relations with Iraq's Arab neighbours. However, their relations with Iran are frosty to say the least. Iran did not succeed in its efforts to have Al-Maliki run with ISCI, with Al-Maliki keen to break with sectarian political allegiances. Yet, this alliance could still re-emerge if Al-Maliki is unable to form a government without the support of ISCI. Iran will be monitoring the current discussions between various Iraqi parties and will be keen to have an influence with the next Prime Minister and cabinet. Turkey is another neighbour that has good relations with most of the factions, yet unlike Iran, has not shown a clear preference for one particular grouping, which could mean it has greater leverage in the long run.

Consequences for the US

Of course, for the United States, a smooth transition to a new government and the solidifying of the Iraqi political process is mandatory for the continued drawdown of American troops. As outlined in President Obama's speech at Camp Lejeune in February 2009, American forces will halt combat operations in Iraq by the end of August 2010, drawing down from just under 100,000 troops currently stationed in Iraq to a target of 50,000.  While the stated aim of  the US and Iraq -- as stipulated in the security agreement signed by former President George Bush's administration and Al-Maliki in December 2008 -- is to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2011, this could change. Both Iraqi and American officials have been careful not to speak publicly of the possibility of drawing up a new security agreement that could keep American troops in Iraq or at least allow them special status in the country, this could be a new area of negotiation for the Obama administration and the new government in Baghdad.

Moreover, Washington has clearly stated its interest in long-term relations with Iraq and thus will remain concerned with how the political process develops. As the Obama administration faces increasing problems in its Middle East policy, whether in regards to  the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or obstacles in dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme, there is a serious need to make Iraq a policy success. A strong and legitimate government in Baghdad is vital both for Iraq's stability and shaping American long-term strategy in the region. Most importantly, as Iraqis grow increasingly frustrated with the failure of the current ruling classes to deliver on their promises, violence and instability may escalate once more if these elections do no produce the much-needed results of security, rule of law and basic services.

Mina Al-Oraibi is Washington bureau chief for Asharq Alawsat newspaper

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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