With the uncertainty of elections, Iraq remains in limbo, writes Salah Nasrawi
Hours after the silence imposed on the candidates in Iraq’s local elections on the day before polling booths opened on Saturday, thousands of Iraqis raced to remove the campaign posters littering street lights, trees, walls and buildings in Baghdad and other cities.
The crowds were mostly poor Iraqis fighting with hawkers to target the pre-election banners and posters, along with other materials such as cartons and billboards.
Their aim was to steal the plates and wooden holders before municipal workers started cleaning up the mess and to take them for sale in the shantytowns and slums that have grown up around the country’s cities.
Iraqi news outlets have reported that the candidates vying for the voters’ attention in the elections have spent some $200 million on campaigning, including on expensive billboard posters and street decorations in the country’s first elections since the exit of the last US troops in December 2011.
Iraq’s elections after the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime have been much touted as offering a model for democracy for the region propelled by the US occupation, although the country has been mired in political conflict and sectarian violence since the US-led invasion in 2003.
With nearly half of eligible voters staying away from the polling stations, many voters appeared to have been caught between apathy and anger about how much the provincial elections would change their lives.
The vote for the provincial councils, responsible for nominating the governors who lead the local administration, has been seen as a key test of the country’s stability amid a spike in sectarian violence and a lingering government crisis.
The elections also served to measure Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s popularity ahead of general elections next year, amid accusations by Arab Sunnis and Kurds about his authoritarian leadership style and the marginalisation of their communities.
Ahead of the polls, Al-Maliki, who has said he wants to bring the national elections next year forward by a few months in an apparent bid to secure a third term in office, announced that he would prefer to form a new “majority” cabinet instead of his national partnership government if he receives most of the votes in the local elections.
Official preliminary results are not expected for several days, but early tallying of votes showed on Monday that Al-Maliki’s State of Law list had an early edge in Baghdad and some other Shia-dominated provinces.
An estimated 13.8 million Iraqis were eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates, with 378 seats being contested in 13 provinces.
Voting was suspended in the two Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, allegedly because of security concerns. Iraq’s three autonomous Kurdish provinces will have their own elections in September, while no balloting is planned in the disputed and ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk.
Turnout for Saturday’s vote was about 51 per cent, the country’s Independent Higher Electoral Commission announced after polling stations had closed. The participation of the nearly one million displaced Iraqis was very low.
Many Iraqis did not vote in the elections despite appeals from political and religious leaders and aggressive campaigning by candidates.
Al-Maliki’s opponents blame his government and the security forces for the low turnout.
“The government’s shortcomings were crystal clear. A lot of people refrained from voting because the government has failed to stop terrorism and provide easy election facilities,” charged Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who is a staunch opponent of Al-Maliki, in a statement.
A spokesman for the Sunni Muwahadoun list said that the elections had been fraught with violations. Dhafir Al-Anni, the spokesman, said that many eligible voters in Sunni areas in Baghdad had not been able to find their names on the polling lists.
The head of the mostly Sunni Al-Iraqiya Bloc, Iyad Allawi, whose bloc showed weak results, said that the security forces had arrested people in many towns and prevented them from voting in some Baghdad areas.
In a preliminary report, the Shams Network for Monitoring Elections said that it had registered some 118 violations, such as the security forces directing voters to vote for specific candidates, a failure to check the identities of voters, and the absence of names of eligible voters on polling lists.
Moreover, the credibility of the balloting also came into doubt as insurgents were still able to carry out bombings despite the heightened security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
For most of the polling day, only approved vehicles were allowed on the streets, and in Baghdad and many other cities roads were closed and new checkpoints set up, with voters being searched before entering polling stations.
Nevertheless, attacks killed three people on the election day after mortar rounds, bombings and grenades landed near polling stations. Gunmen dressed in police uniforms entered a polling station in a village in Diyala, north of Baghdad, burned ballot boxes, and then escaped.
In the past week, dozens of people have been killed in a series of bombings across Iraq, targeting mainly Shia areas, but also two polling stations. Fourteen election candidates died in attacks ahead of the polls.
On Thursday, a bomb attack in a Baghdad cafe popular with Iraqi youth killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens of others. All in all, some 250 Iraqis were killed this month in the run up to the elections, while hundreds of others were injured.
Iraqi sectarian divisions have also been reflected in the decision to keep two provinces out of Saturday’s voting.
On Monday, Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had the most to lose after the fall of the Saddam regime, held a day of civil disobedience, protesting against what it said was the discrimination against the community by the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
In the predominantly Sunni provinces and in some Sunni-populated neighbourhoods in Baghdad, many schools, government offices and shops were closed and the streets were almost empty except for police vehicles.
Sunnis have staged months of protests against Al-Maliki, accusing him of amassing power in Shia hands, discriminating against them, and sidelining Sunni leaders.
On Tuesday, dozens of protesters were either killed or wounded when government forces clashed with Sunni protesters in Haweeja in Salaheddin province. The fighting raised fears of further clashes in other Sunni provinces, where protesters have been calling for revenge.
Iraq’s provincial elections are held to elect bodies that are meant to ensure decentralisation, but by winning at the local level national groups can deepen their power bases ahead of next year’s parliamentary vote.
There has been a strong case for arguing that the present polarising provincial ballot has re-drawn more starkly than ever before the ethno-sectarian battle lines in Iraqi politics.
It remains to be seen how the results of the elections will affect Iraq’s lingering political crisis, as they are widely seen as a test of support at the Shia grassroots level for Al-Maliki and his Daawa Party.
Many commentators fear that Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term as prime minister in next year’s parliamentary elections, will rally Shias behind his tough policy against the Sunnis and the Kurds once the local elections are out of the way.
The clearest sign of such a move would be the formation of provincial councils with the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, a rival Shia group led by cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, which according to early tallying has made a good showing in the provincial elections.
This would allow Al-Maliki to claim a mandate for the “political majority” he has been advocating, even if he will have only a tight win in the local elections.
Yet, by moving towards a majority government dominated by Shias, and by expanding his hold on power, Al-Maliki will also jeopardise Iraq’s fledgling political process by further alienating his Sunni and Kurdish rivals and raising sectarian tensions in the country.
It is unlikely that the Sunnis, who have been resisting marginalisation by Al-Maliki and the country’s Shias, will consent to the humiliation of exclusion.
If Al-Maliki insists on his idea of a majority government, the Sunnis may finally opt for an autonomous federal entity, as many of their leaders have been proposing.
The Kurds, who run their own autonomous region, have already threatened that they will hold a referendum on self-determination if Baghdad’s central government insists on denying them equal partnership status in the country.