On 31 January, Iraqis will head to the polls in fourteen of eighteen governorates to elect new provincial councils. The stakes are considerable. Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all-out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point. They will serve several important objectives: refreshing local governance; testing the strength of various parties; and serving as a bellwether for nationwide political trends. In several governorates, new parties or parties that failed to run four years ago may oust, or at least reduce the dominance of, a handful of dominant parties whose rule has been marred by pervasive mismanagement and corruption. This in itself would be a positive change with far-reaching consequences as the nation braces for parliamentary elections later in 2009.
In January 2005, key constituencies such as Sunni Arabs and the Shiite urban-slum underclass largely stayed away and thus were excluded from power in the current councils. The result was imbalanced provincial bodies often unreflective of popular needs, as well as an accumulation of local grievances. At the time, weak home-grown parties took a back seat to exile-bred Shiite Islamist parties in Baghdad and governorates south of the capital which capitalised on endorsements from senior clerics.
Today, even before the first ballot has been cast, the elections mark a remarkable transition. In the past four years, politics have evolved from a violent conflict focused largely on the capital to an essentially democratic contest over positions and institutions, including at the local level. Former confessional blocs are fraying, as sectarianism is increasingly challenged by more nationalist sentiment and promises of better governance by political actors seeking to capture the public mood. Competition between communities is joined by competition within them. Violence persists in Baghdad and elsewhere, often fierce and ruthless; the past few weeks alone have witnessed incidents – targeted killings, bombings and intimidation – that in one way or another are designed to influence the vote. But, for now at least, virtually all major players, including those that boycotted the polls in 2005, have accepted the principle of elections and fully thrown themselves into electoral battle.
The elections inevitably will have severe shortcomings. Most significantly perhaps, ruling parties enjoy built-in advantages that will make it hard to translate severe popular disappointment into clear repudiation at the polls. The electoral law may not be as favourable as they would have liked but is probably good enough to give currently dominant parties an edge. They will use their superior access to wealth and patronage to influence the vote. Their control of crucial institutions, from the security apparatus to state-run mosques, is no trivial affair. Fraud is feared, despite domestic monitoring and in the absence of international observers. And the opposition is hopelessly divided.
Yet even an imperfect outcome is bound to begin to redress some of the most severe problems associated with the 2005 elections – from corruption and mismanagement to the enormous political imbalances generated by the boycott of Sunni Arabs and many followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. Indeed, even if ruling parties maintain power, the electoral process would retain virtues and value. It already has introduced a degree of accountability: practices of the past four years have been stigmatised, most council members are not even trying to get re-elected and parties have been forced to change their discourse, put on new faces and recruit independents. A new political elite will make its entrance, if only by this influx of (both nominal and real) independents with a technocratic profile. In constituencies that suffered most from the 2005 boycott, disenfranchised groups will make a comeback, assuring fairer representation of all segments of the population. Sunni Arabs in particular can be expected to strengthen their representation within the political system.
Elsewhere, elections likely will lead to more diverse and equitable representation by at least somewhat diluting the ruling parties’ current power and allowing the emergence of new players. In turn, more balanced councils might prevent certain parties from monopolising local institutions. Finally, provincial councils with newly enhanced powers should become a more important political arena and reinforce the shift away from inter-communal competition, including via new, cross-cutting, program-based political alliances.
Electoral subplots abound. An eclectic assortment of opposition parties hope to capitalise on the councils’ failings and on popular distaste for the extreme decentralisation advocated by the principal ruling parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Kurdistan Alliance. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamic Call (Daawa) Party is hoping to take advantage of the government’s surprising military and political achievements in 2008, which have persuaded many Iraqis to see Maliki more as a national leader than, as in 2006 when he came to office, a narrow sectarian chief. His principal goal in both the provincial elections and parliamentary elections later in the year is to strengthen his position, while keeping ISCI and the Sadrists in relative balance, so as to prolong his tenure at the head of government.
While most governorates may witness only modest rollback of the ruling parties’ power, the changes in several could be significant. These are battleground states not because the results are certain to be close but because the fight is likely to be most ferocious. They are Baghdad, the capital, and oil-rich Basra, where stakes are highest, as well as Ninewa (Mosul), Diyala (Baaquba) and Anbar (Ramadi), where the 2005 results were most distorted.
In the face of undeniable enthusiasm surrounding the elections (expressed in the large number of candidates and active campaigning), it would be both unfair to underestimate and wrong to overestimate their importance. Just over a year after the end of a dangerous sectarian war, progress in laying the foundations for sustainable peace and a functioning state has been limited. Both the Iraqi government and the Bush administration defined stabilisation and state building primarily narrowly, as an exercise in recreating the security apparatus. Even in that field, results have been mixed; in other domains, such as the provision of services and the judiciary, they are far worse still. More fundamentally, Iraq will remain a deeply fragile state as long as the main players fail to overcome their differences and reach agreement on the distribution of power, territory and resources, and as long as the U.S. fails to reach an understanding with neighbours both worried about Iraq’s instability and willing to fuel it if necessary to protect their interests.
Yet, the current experiment in democracy holds promise. A new generation of politicians, born through grassroots support in the electoral process and bred in councils given new prerogatives, may start to graduate to national office – if not as soon as the parliamentary elections that are tentatively scheduled for late 2009, then surely in four years’ time and onward. This brand of home-grown lawmakers will come to the job with less baggage and better credentials than the current leadership and might both be better equipped and more willing to make compromises. This background report is accordingly designed as a guide to elections that could help put Iraq on more stable, albeit still fragile footing.
Baghdad/Istanbul/Brussels, 27 January 2009