|The March 7 elections will be unlike any the Iraqis have ever experienced [GALLO/GETTY]
Since the occupation of Baghdad and the fall of the Baath regime in April 2003, the Iraqi people have gone to the polls almost once every year, on average.
Among the countless running jokes in Iraq today is the one where an independent candidate pledges to save the country millions by keeping his current election posters plastered through the capital's streets – permanently.
Jokes aside, however, the March 7 parliamentary elections promise to be unlike any the Iraqi people have ever experienced. Despite shortcomings, misgivings and failures of the political structure established post-2003, it seems that most Iraqi factions have finally become resigned to the fact that this is as good as it gets.
They realise that any socio-economic and democratic progress must come from within that political structure itself.
Point in case is the fiercely critical Alliance of Muslim Scholars, who has previously vehemently opposed and discouraged any participation in the political structure, have this time around fallen ominously silent.
Reports abound in Baghdad that they may secretly and indirectly be backing Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyablock to win the elections. Even once militant groups which refused to disarm until the occupation ended, have now opted to join various groups and alliances in hope that the political promise will compliment what they feel had been achieved on the battle ground.
|An Iraqi woman living in Syria casts her vote at a polling station in Damascus [AFP]
This election is also expected to see a significant percentage of Iraqis voting along non-sectarian lines for the first time since the fall of the former regime, with a number of credible polls suggesting that secular Allawi’s Iraqiya might come on top.
However, these same polls indicate that neither Iraqiya nor the three other major groups - Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance led by Ammar al-Hakim, the Kurdish Alliance – are likely to win an outright majority.
The spectacle of the Iraq elections then becomes not in the campaigning and voting stage, but in the political wrangling which will likely arise once the results are announces.
In a best case scenario, a government will be formed two to three months after the elections; a worst case estimate says that Iraq could be without a fully functioning government for up to six months.
The office of the prime minister will be up for grabs, with heated discussions already taking place and several figures staking their claim to being the worthy contenders for the post.
Some have already made the pilgrimage to Washington to improve their chances of leading the next government, while others have considered Tehran a more reliable destination if their ambition of becoming Prime Minister is to be realised. A few have travelled in both directions, just in case.
Allawi seems to be ahead in that race too, not only because his block is likely to win the most popular votes, but because of the deep cracks surfacing between former Shia political allies.
With Maliki fighting for a comeback and a second term, there are several candidates from the Shia political alliances with almost equal hopes vying for the post.
Adel Abdel Mahdi, one of the two current vice-presidents, has made semi-public protestations that he has been waiting in the shadows long enough and it is now his turn.
Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, has becoming increasingly restless at having failed to capitalise on the ‘favours’ he personally delivered to the Americans and their plans to invade and occupy Iraq.
Bayan Solagh, a former interior minister, also believes he is the man for the job, but he is unlikely to overcome public perceptions that during his tenure, he presided over the worst period of sectarian violence the country had seen.
There are some who even claim, that he allowed the ethnic cleansing and mass-murder of tens of thousands of Sunnis in Baghdad.
In the meantime, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who served as Maliki’s predecessor until Shia political pressures forced him to begrudgingly step down in 2006, wants his old job back.
The Shia alliances are in a crisis; they can no longer afford to appear disunited or allow further splits after Maliki left the UIA and formed his State of Law coalition.
This again works to Allawi's favour; he is from a revered Shia family and it could be seen that his tenure as prime minister may re-galvanise Shia politics.
Who's the president?
|Could Hashemi garner enough political clout to become the next Iraqi president?
There will likely also be another looming battle for the office of the presidency.
Although largely ceremonial, the position is powerfully symbolic and in Iraq’s continuing politically unstable condition, could carry far more weight and influence than designed by the constitution.
Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has voiced his desire to step down from the presidency after the elections, but he nonetheless expects to be urged to hold on to the post.
Tareq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice-president may not play ball this time. Given his recent media-savvy press conferences, political gravitas, and no secret that he seeks the position, Hashemi could pose a serious challenged to the ailing Kurdish leader.
This will be bad news not only for the Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish Regional Government president and long-term arch rival, but also for US strategists who would rather not see the relatively calm north engulfed in internal political strife again. In the 1990s, rival Kurdish factions fought a bitter war for control of the semi-autonomous region until US mediators stepped in and averted a civil war in the years preceding the 2003 invasion.
Vacuum of authority
Given that there are numerous key government posts, including the much-vaunted position of speaker of the national assembly, up for grabs, Iraqis should not expect a smooth transfer of power.
There is likely to be a vacuum of authority while the political wheeling and dealing, and behind-the-scene negotiations take place.
This is the phase when the whole political map is likely to be re-drawn and new alliances formed; smaller blocs, including the Iraqi Islamic Party’s Al-Tawafuq could emerge as king-makers and deal-brokers. It is during this time that Iraq will also see an increase in violent attacks designed to intimidate and influence negotiations.
Of course, there are also the internal struggles for prominent slices of the political cake within each block. Allawi’s alliance in particular promises such a spectacle.
With numerous prominent figures - Allawi, Hashemi, Dhafir al-Ani and Saleh al-Mutlaq - all likely to claim credit for the potential gains, it is hard to see how the battle for the main posts will easily be settled, particularly with only a few of those potentially on offer.
Suddenly, some within Iraqiya see the blessing in disguise hidden behind the controversial and much protested judicial decision to ban Mutlaq and Ani from running in the election allegedly because of their Baathist past.
Some of Mutlaq’s supporters have even suggested that the whole episode was orchestrated with a nod from Allawi himself, a suggestion refuted by the two men.
End of sectarianism?
|Voting trends seem to indicate that Iraqis will move away from sectarian politics [REUTERS]
The March 7 elections could pronounce the end of the sectarian conflict.
The Marjaiya – the Shia religious authority – led by Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani who served as the main deal-broker in previous elections, recently declared that it will not voice support for any political party nor will it get involved in the political process.
Some in Iraq have speculated that this could signal irreparable divisions within the Shia political community.
Iran, a stalwart provider of financial, logistical, and moral support for Iraq’s Shia blocs, has enough of its own internal and external problems to contend; Tehran is no longer as strong as it was in Iraq as recently as 2006.
Some even point to a recent rise in Iraqi nationalism which transcended sectarian divides, and has taken strong opposition to Iran for meddling in Iraq.
The US, still believed to wield the ultimate veto power in Iraq, has seemingly shifted sides.
The Bush administration had made support of the allegedly beleaguered and oppressed majority Shia population the centrepiece of its strategy to "win Iraqi hearts and minds".
But that came at too great a cost to US long-term strategic planning.
The Obama administration appears to care very little who emerges victorious in the March 7 elections as long as the plans for its withdrawal in 2011 go undisturbed.
However, it the most likely significant change to emerge from the elections is the transformation of the overall mood and outlook of the Iraqi people themselves.
Walk the streets of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul and you get a strange sense of determination despite scant public confidence in the political hierarchy or the system that was gradually but almost forcefully imposed upon them since 2003.
The determination lies in the realisation that few nations throughout the world could have survived the trials and tribulations of the past seven years intact; yet the Iraqis, through providence or an indomitable stubbornness, have done just that.
In fact they have lived through nearly four decades of such difficulties even prior to the US-led invasion in 2003. The miserable conditions they have endured continue to persist, but what has changed is that whatever faith was placed in the new rulers or their agents in Iraq has now shifted inward.
There are signs of the re-emergence of that distinguished national spirit which many suspected had become irreparable when Iraq appeared on the verge of civil war in 2006.
The overall voter turnout this weekend might even exceed the expected average of 55-58 per cent.
Most will confess that they vote not in hope that the newly elected will bring about a transformation of fortunes, but rather in resignation that this is yet another tired process they have to endure in their struggle to regain their self-worth, dignity and freedom.
Anas Altikriti is the CEO of the Cordoba Foundation, a London-based think-tank involved in building bridges and improving understanding between the West and the Muslim world, through research, training and conflict resolution.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy