The world holds its breath as Iraqis put their lives on the line for the first free vote their war-torn nation has ever known—even if in a relative way. But will the ballots of democracy really hold up against the bullets of insurgency? Here's Outlook's primer on the January 30 elections in Iraq.
What is this election all about?
Creating an entirely new government for Iraq, starting with a 275-seat transitional national assembly. Whoever assumes power will have the crucial task of holding the country together as it goes about writing a new constitution, carving in stone the final political system for post-Saddam Iraq. It then proceeds to another election, under whatever system of governance the constitution prescribes.
Who is running for office?
Everybody and his dog. A dizzying 111 different slates (see Road to Democracy) of political parties, coalitions and independent candidates are on the ballot. But the field is led by large-bloc coalitions that reflect Iraq's sectarian and religious divisions. Parties representing Shi'ite Arabs, who comprise an estimated 60 per cent of Iraqis, are expected to dominate with a strong showing anticipated also from Iraqi Kurds whose main factions have unified under a single ticket.
The weakest links in the process remain the reluctant voices of Sunni Islam, the embattled minority from whence Saddam Hussein came. Many among this estimated 20 per cent minority view the election as a threat that will codify the end of their 80-year hegemony in Iraqi affairs.
That sounds complicated. Do Iraqis understand it?
Well, they know there's an election. Three weeks of relentless television advertising told them so. But the sheer abundance of factions and the shroud of secrecy cloaking individual candidates, many of who have concealed their identity for fear of assassination, make this first experiment in democracy especially daunting. Iraqis are also struggling to understand the format of proportional representation, which will allot seats to the winning slates in accordance with their percentage of the popular vote.
Add to that the escalating threats of jehadist insurgents, who have labelled all who would dare vote as apostates deserving of death. The prospects of a smooth and substantial turnout at more than 9,000 polling stations across Iraq appear dubious, at best.
How has the process unfolded so far?
Precariously. Despite repeated calls for delays amid a bloody escalation in violence, most Iraqi political parties have sallied forth, building coalitions to broaden their chances for a share of power. Candidates from the Shi'ite Arab community have been accused of cashing in on the popularity of the revered grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani by using his photograph in their campaign literature. The Iraqi National Alliance has reportedly fashioned its national list (see Road to Democracy) in consultation with Sistani. Other parties, meanwhile, have complained that interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, who heads the National Accord Party, has violated election rules by using government resources to boost his campaign.
Can a credible new government emerge?
Most analysts expect a paltry turnout from the Sunni minority which will leave the anticipated Shi'ite-dominated coalition facing an immediate credibility gap. But the major Shi'ite and Kurdish factions vying for power have hedged their bets by including Sunni candidates on their slates, and promise to be generous in accommodating this embattled minority with a significant voice in the new government.
Many Iraqis are unlikely to invest significant credibility in whatever government emerges as long as their country remains the domain of US-led military forces.But the new government is certain to earn an incremental share of Iraqi confidence, as compared to the interim leaders in place until today.
Will the vote have an impact on the continuing violence?
Not in the near term. Ballots and bullets are expected to remain mutually exclusive, with one unlikely to affect the other for months, or in a worst-case scenario, even years.
Are Iraqis showing an appetite for democracy?
Actually, yes, insofar as more than 350 political parties have emerged in the last 20 months since the fall of Saddam. Many of the international workers helping to nurture Iraqi democracy—and they too speak on condition of anonymity, for fear of attack—describe heartening instances of Iraq's fledgling political class braving its way past the carnage of suicide bombs to attend seminars on coalition-building and other democratic tools.
There are those who argue that by declaring war on democracy, the most extreme elements of the Iraqi insurgency are likely to further isolate themselves from a populace altogether exhausted by a quarter century of conflict.
But analysts in Baghdad anticipate any future democracy will be uniquely Iraqi in character. Possibly, it will emerge as a variation on Lebanon's quota system of governance, in which power will be balanced by guaranteeing specific senior positions to the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.
What can we expect in the months to come?
Barring any truly catastrophic events on January 30 or after, a new government—likely comprising a coalition of leading parties—is almost certain to fall under the sway of Sistani. The popular grand ayatollah will be put to the test once and for all, to live up to his vision of a broad-based government whose face will be secular, inclusive and respectful of minorities, albeit based on a constitution consistent with the tenets of Islam.
Sistani's overarching challenge, however, will be to initiate a process of national reconciliation that, one way or another, will draw Sunni Arabs into the bosom of the new Iraq. Some watchers say the new government will have no choice but to present Sunnis with a share of power perhaps exceeding their numbers. Others suggest that the new Iraqi leadership will ultimately have to match terror with terror in order to reduce the insurgency to levels that will allow Iraq to get back on its feet.
Either way, the stakes could not be higher. It's Sistani alone who has demonstrated uncommon patience, commanding Shi'ite restraint against attempts to violently goad Iraq toward sectarian conflict. If the level of bombings against Shi'ite schools and mosques continue apace, many analysts say it is only a matter of time before that patience collapses into the darkest imaginable scenario—full-blown civil war.
(Mitch Potter is Middle East Correspondent for the Toronto Star. He has reported from Iraq seven times since the onset of America's invasion.)
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