Inching towards autocracy

Iraq’s provincial election is seen as a gauge of democratic succession and nation-building, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraqis are headed to the polls Saturday to elect new local governments amid acute political crisis and a surge in violence that has wrecked several provinces and left more than a dozen candidates dead. Embattled Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is widely seen to be manipulating the election to muster support for his bid to secure a third term in office despite strong opposition from the country’s Kurds, Sunnis and even some Shias who accuse him of monopolising power and sidelining his partners.
Al-Maliki, whose State of the Law List is a key contender in Shia-dominated southern provinces, has been leading an aggressive campaign to enlist public support on a ticket that advocates strong leadership for a bitterly divided and violence-torn nation. In tough speeches during the election campaign Al-Maliki urged his supporters to come en mass to polling stations on Saturday.
He also accused his opponents of receiving backing from foreign intelligence services to make their way to the local governments. “Participation [in polls] is like a bullet fired against the enemies,” he said at an election rally in Kut, south of Baghdad, on Saturday. In Meesan, further to the south, Al-Maliki told another crowd Sunday that if Iraqis won’t support his bloc, remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party will come back to power in Iraq.
Al-Maliki is the head of the Islamic Daawa Party, which many Iraqis believe he is grooming to become a new ruling party, styled on Saddam’s autocratic Baath Party. His vigorous campaigning sparked fear that most of the vote will go to his list.
Opponents accuse Al-Maliki who is also minister of interior and chief commander of the army of abusing state resources, including the state-owned media to promote his image and his party’s standing. Observers also talk of irregularities in registration of voters.
Some 16 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in the 20 April polls, where more than 8,000 candidates are vying for 378 seats on Governorate Councils which are responsible of running day-to-day administration of the provinces. Around 23,000 local observers and some 174 foreigners will monitor the elections, according to the Independent Election Commission which will supervise the balloting.
The three provinces of the autonomous Kurdistan Region and the disputed northern province of Kirkuk are not participating in the local elections. The government also suspended balloting in two Sunni-majority provinces where authorities say security cannot be guaranteed.
Ahead of the election insurgents have stepped up their campaign of bombings and attacks targeting security forces and Shia areas. On Monday, car bombs and attacks on cities across Iraq, including two blasts at a checkpoint at Baghdad international airport, killed at least 55 people and wounded hundreds.
Attacks targeted several candidates. On Sunday, gunmen opened fire on two candidates leaving them dead in two separate attacks. Twelve other candidates have been killed, six of them are members of the mainly Sunni Iraqiya bloc, fostering a notion that they are being targeted.
Officials have insisted they are capable of holding the polls nationwide, but political leaders have voiced concern about further violence and held Al-Maliki responsible for the security deterioration. Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, a staunch critic of Al-Maliki, accused him of negligence and devoting his time to electioneering instead of ensuring security. “While people are being bombed some are busy in making election propaganda in disrespect to the blood spilled over the roads,” said Al-Sadr in a statement.
“What increases our pain and regret is the indifference shown by the prime minister who is on a provincial tour to promote his list,” said Suleiman Al-Jumaili, a prominent Sunni law-maker.
The government declared a curfew on Saturday and put security forces on high alert in a move to stave off attacks during the polling day.
The provincial election is revolving mostly on basic services such as electricity, sewerage, health, corruption and high unemployment. The elected bodies which are responsible for nominating governors are meant to ensure decentralised governance and democratic successions but the councils have often complained of restrictions issued by Al-Maliki’s government.
Army soldiers and police forces have cast their ballots for the elections on Saturday ahead of next week’s main vote. Some 650,000 soldiers and policemen were eligible to vote. Critics said the soldiers and the police forces were subject to pressure by their superiors, who are loyal to Al-Maliki, to vote for the prime minister’s list. The Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan said there have been no reports of violation or pressure on voters to choose a specific list.
The cabinet decision to postpone the provincial elections in the Sunni dominated Anbar and Nineveh provinces has sparked criticism and accusations of manipulation in favour of Al-Maliki’s Sunni allies. Al-Maliki’s office said the delay of the election in the two provinces is due to threats to election workers and violence in these two provinces which have been witnessing Sunni anti Al-Maliki protests since the beginning of the year.
Meanwhile, Kurds have been enmeshed in internal wrangling over the election after Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced plans this week for balloting in provincial, parliamentary and presidential races in September.
The dispute centres around the right of Barzani himself to stand for election for a third term, despite the Kurdistan Region’s constitution which limits the presidency to only two terms. 
His supporters argue that he was initially appointed by the Kurdish parliament in 2005, and re-elected four years later and therefore he is eligible for re-election. Barzani’s opponents argue that he has served two full terms, and has completed the maximum allowed time.
The row is expected to deepen division between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and pro-democracy groups who have been trying to stifle Barzani’s over-all control on the government and politics in the Kurdish region which has been dominated by Barzani’s party and family.
Election wrangles in both the Shia-controlled south and the Kurdish-ruled north show how difficult is the job of building democracy in Iraq, despite claims by Washington that the US-invasion has ushered in a democratic era following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. 
Indeed, far from making Iraq a democracy, the US-invasion has established a sectarian-based political system where sect and ethnicity trump other national loyalties and efforts of nation-building and good governance.
Iraq has held several elections since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam but the country has remained deadlocked in political conflicts and sometimes in bloody sectarian power struggles that have mired it in a prolonged existential crisis.
 Saturday’s elections come with the country engulfed in a government dispute that has pitted Al-Maliki against several of his erstwhile national unity Cabinet partners, and amid more than three months of anti-government protests by the country’s Sunni Arab minority.
The polls, therefore, should not only be seen as a measure of Al-Maliki’s popularity but of the country’s multi-sectarian and ethnic political groups to build a more responsive political system.
If Al-Maliki succeeds in dominating local governments and cashes in on the results to win the country’s next parliamentary election in 2014, he would opt for a majority-based national government, as he has been advocating.
 Also, if Barzani stands for election in polling in September as he plans and refuses to end the era of being the supreme leader of Iraq’s Kurds, he will betray his commitment in true democracy for Kurds. 
That would mean the end to the era of consensus politics and ultimately the Iraqi experiment would be entering uncharted waters.

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