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Iraq elections: Will history repeat itself?

The success of these elections can only be measured by the tangible socio-political changes they bring about.

Last updated: 30 Apr 2014 06:58
Firas Al-Atraqchi

Firas Al-Atraqchi is an Iraqi political analyst and an associate professor of practice at the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University of Cairo.
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Iraq today is a product of the divisions deeply embedded since 2003's Iraqi Governing Council appropriated power-sharing based on sectarian, religious and ethnic quotas, writes al-Atraqchi [EPA]

Millions of Iraqis who are heading to the polls today will likely remember what happened the last time they elected their leaders. The 2010 elections almost would have never happened had US officials not rushed to mediate between Iraq's Shia Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, all of whom were squabbling over a new electoral law, claiming it reduced their representative power.

The pre-poll purging of dozens of candidates - a majority of whom were prominent Sunnis from the Iraqiya bloc led by Iyad Allawi - also heightened suspicion among some that his main rival incumbent Nouri al-Maliki was stacking the deck.

The elections were coming unhinged until US Vice President Joe Biden visited Iraq for the 10th time in a year and mediated between the different sectarian and political groups.

When the final results, announced on March 26, showed that Allawi's Iraqiya had won the most seats - two more than Maliki's State of Law bloc - the incumbent prime minister immediately held a press conference in which he blasted the independent electoral commission and called for a manual recount.

When the UN endorsed the results as fair and free, Maliki criticised their role in the election process. He then went to the Supreme Court, or what passes for one in Iraq, and asked them to redefine the difference between bloc and coalition.

Between 2010 and 2013, Maliki appropriated control of ministries based on sectarian affiliations and political loyalties. The Iraqi army remains largely sectarian, and Sunni militias, which were credited by US commanders as having played a pivotal role in stabilising the country, were discouraged and barred from joining national security forces.

The current Iraqi constitution holds that the kutla (bloc) which wins the largest seats in the elections should be the one tasked with getting a first shot at forming a government. If the bloc fails to do so within 30 days, the responsibility falls to the bloc which won the second highest number of seats.

Many in Iraq believed that having won the highest number of seats - 91 - the Iraqiya coalition and its leader would be called on to form a government. Within two days of the final results, the Court threw the constitution itself in disarray when it ruled in Maliki's favour saying that a bloc could be formed even after the elections.

Iraq was effectively thrown into further tumult as political jockeying delayed the formation of a government for nine months. It is unthinkable that a populace so deprived of basic services, so longing for security and stability ravaged by war and violence perpetrated by sectarian and extremist militias should have to wait while the officials it elected barter political power.

History repeats itself

Why examine the 2010 elections in 2014? History, apparently, is repeating itself. In October 2013, the same political forces raised the same grievances about the same sectarian power distribution when Iraq's parliament debated yet another revision to the electoral law.

Passed a month later, the revision allowed for a change in how seats are appropriated in parliament. But the danger here is in the fact that the revision is not legislative but in reality merely a proposal.

Constitutionally, the Supreme Court could strike this revision down if prompted by political pressure to do so. And political pressure has already made a mockery of the independent electoral commission which resigned en masse last month to protest what they said was interference in the vetting of candidates. They retracted their resignations on March 30 after meeting with the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG), Nickolay Mladenov.

Meanwhile, Maliki's State of Law party has been campaigning on the promise of forming a majority government to bring about change in the country. Most political observers in Iraq believe Maliki's party will win the greatest number of votes, but not necessarily the requisite 165 of 328 seats. State of Law will then seek out other parties to build a coalition that will give it the majority it needs to form a government - not unlike 2010 - and without the help of the Supreme Court. With a renewed mandate and based on the way he ran the government in the last four years, Maliki is likely to continue to bolster the role of the central government in stark contrast to the aspirations of the provinces (such as Iraqi Kurdistan).

A unilateral move of that sort - after results are announced and in case State of Law does not win enough seats - would signal that Maliki no longer needs the courts to weigh in on his side.

He will likely also continue to use threats and force when he feels diplomacy has run its course to coerce provinces to toe the line (such as the two-year impasse with Anbar, which culminated in military operations), and override political grievances of opposition groups (such as the Sadrists). 

He will also likely consolidate his position as prime minister to ensure he is not ousted if coalitions collapse in parliament.

A perpetuation of the status quo will all but ensure that the government will continue to be ineffective in dealing with the dire security situation, leading to increased violence and ultimately the slow, but timed disintegration of the country.

Divisions plague Iraq ahead of elections

What's different this time around

So, what's changed since the last elections? Iraq is far less secure and the violence is the deadliest in years, but this too is borne of a lack of political inclusiveness.

Between 2010 and 2013, Maliki appropriated control of ministries based on sectarian affiliations and political loyalties. The Iraqi army remains largely sectarian, and Sunni militias, which were credited by US commanders as having played a pivotal role in stabilising the country, were discouraged and barred from joining national security forces. He wields significant influence on the judiciary, the Supreme Court, the electoral commission, military and paramilitary forces.

In 2013, Sunni frustrations with the central government coupled with the "betrayal" of the Sahwa Awakening Councils erupted in a continuing wave of violence that mimicked the sectarian tit-for-tat massacres in 2005 - 2007. In late December, security forces also forcibly ended a year-long protest in Ramadi which began when Sunni tribes there called on the Maliki government to release detainees and deliver on promises made to politically and militarily integrate the sahwa and their leaders.

Iraqi military forces began a campaign there in February to rout out what they said were fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaeda-linked group. ISIL has been one of the major groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has made good use of the porous borders between Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi military operation appears to have backfired: ISIL controls most of western Iraq and the northern Nineveh province, and has been evolving both in its capabilities and its hold on territory. More importantly, ISIL is being seen by powerful Sunni tribal leaders as a means to an end - that being ending Maliki's rule and creating greater political autonomy for Anbar and other provinces.

In a further blow to its security efforts, the government two weeks ago abandoned the notorious Abu Ghraib prison citing fears that it could fall into ISIL hands.

ISIL's growing strength has forced the government's hands: On April 27, Iraqi helicopters crossed into Syrian airspace and attacked a convoy suspected of carrying supplies to the al-Qaeda-linked group in Anbar.

The Syrian quagmire is itself problematic for the government in Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqi Shia have been recruited by Assad's backers to fight against ISIL and other Sunni-led rebel groups in Iraq. Hundreds have returned in coffins to be buried as "martyrs who died protecting holy sites" in and around Damascus.

Is this a stable country ready to hold elections?

The 2010 elections - and this week's polls - prove only that the country is at a critical crossroads and that sectarianism continues to be a major threat.

With politicians' failure to resolve any of Iraq's political crises through the fair distribution of wealth and power, the consistent shadow of civil war and division - all these developments contribute to the deconstruction of a state's foundations, its ability to govern effectively and its ability to protect its citizenry and sovereignty.

Iraq today is a product of the divisions deeply embedded since 2003's Iraqi Governing Council appropriated power-sharing based on sectarian, religious and ethnic quotas.

The success of the election itself cannot be measured by numbers of voters and percentage points but by the tangible socio-political changes it brings about. Iraq's democratic process will be little more than a mirage if national reconciliation is not made the next government's strategic priority.

Firas Al-Atraqchi is an Iraqi political analyst and an associate professor of practice at the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University of Cairo.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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