Iraq’s futile elections

With their hopes for change dashed by chaos, Iraqis are losing interest in another meaningless set of elections, writes Salah Nasrawi
Shortly before Iraq kicked off the election campaign for the 2014 parliamentary polls last week, the Shia-led government sent a draft emergency bill to parliament that introduces draconian anti-democracy measures.
The National Safety Law, as it is billed, raises serious questions about the viability of the parliamentary elections as the government plans to twist the constitution and take unrelenting actions against its critics and opponents.
The proposed law gives the government the right to impose sweeping restrictions on the freedoms of movement, travel, speech and political activities.
Under the law, the government can impose censorship on media, personal letters, cables and emails as part of larger restrictions if it deems these necessary “to confront security threats from military or non-military actions”.
It can also declare curfews, issue house arrests, limit the opening hours of shops, take control of state economic assets and delay payments of government debts.
The law has yet to be ratified by the parliament, but concerns have been raised that Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third consecutive term in office, might be planning the emergency measures in order to manipulate the elections. 
The elections, scheduled for 30 April, also come amid political turmoil, constitutional disputes and increasing instability in the country, which have cast heavy shadows over the polls.
Violence has risen sharply in the past year, fuelling fears that Iraq is slipping back into the all-out communal conflict that plagued the country following the US-led invasion in 2003 and left hundreds of thousands dead.
UN figures put the overall toll for 2013 at 8,873 deaths in violent attacks across Iraq, while nearly three thousand people have been killed this year alone, not including in the rebellious Sunni-populated town of Fallujah.
On the other hand, Iraq’s annual budget has been languishing in parliament over a dispute between the Baghdad central government and the self-ruled Kurdistan region. Political stalemate has gripped the country as ethno-sectarian bickering and disagreements over sharing power and oil revenues have continued vigorously.
Parliamentary elections are required to be held once every four years. In the event a group or coalition wins a majority of the seats, it can then go on to form a government.
More than 9,000 candidates are vying for the 328 seats in parliament. Dozens of hopefuls, including four current MPs, have been disqualified either for links with the former regime of former president Saddam Hussein, for their bad reputation, or for having criminal records. 
But the race still appears to be a wide-open competition between Iraq’s three main communities, the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds, whose candidates run on ethnic and sectarian tickets.
Iraq has been ruled by a Shia-led coalition government for the last decade, and questions now largely centre on whether the new parliament can ever hope to change the hopelessly dysfunctional ethno-sectarian based political system created by the Americans for the post-Saddam era.
Even before the election campaign officially kicked off on 1 April, the main contenders in the increasingly bitter battle to lead the violence-torn country had been intensifying their mobilisation and personal duels.
The polls are expected to worsen Iraq’s already fragile communal ties, as political parties typically conduct election campaigns by appealing to voters’ sectarian, ethnic or tribal backgrounds rather than to national issues.
The UN envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, has warned that the elections seem to be “highly divisive” as parties have been appealing to their sectarian bases at a time of worsening violence.
Al-Maliki is also eyeing a third term in office, even as he faces criticisms from opponents who accuse him of an authoritarian style of government at odds with Iraq’s post-Saddam constitutional system of political compromise and consensus-building.
They have also been attempting to capitalise on his failure to provide security and basic services in the country, as well as to curb the rampant corruption which has combined to make Iraq one of the most deadly and miserable places on earth.
Since the campaign started, the rhetoric against Al-Maliki has increased, with key politicians and religious leaders picking on his mistakes and political follies.
Top Sunni politician and speaker of the parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi warned on Sunday that Iraq’s failure would have far-reaching consequences, including serious “repercussions for the entire world”.
Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has warned that the political process launched by the Americans and installing Al-Maliki in power is now “on the verge of failure”.
“Iraq is disintegrating,” he said in an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat on Friday.
Even Shia leaders who traditionally have defended Shia empowerment against Sunni opposition have become disenchanted with Al-Maliki’s policies.
Representatives of Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who rarely speaks in public, have been urging voters to choose “new faces” instead of “the ones who have brought no good to Iraq”.
Another Grand Ayatollah, Basheer Najafi, has gone public in demanding that Al-Maliki step down. “If Al-Maliki stays in power, Iraq will never be able to stand up again,” he said in a statement last week.
Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr also urged Al-Maliki not to run for a third term, accusing him of terrorising Sunnis so that they did not go to the polls in the upcoming elections.
He has repeatedly accused Al-Maliki of trying to “build a dictatorship” by excluding his partners from the government.
Now there are increasing signs that Barzani, Al-Sadr and the leader of the Shia Iraqi Islamic Council Ammar Al-Hakim are coordinating their efforts to stop Al-Maliki from getting a third term in office.
Al-Maliki seems to be unable to counter his opponents’ confident campaign, but he may be using the prolonged instability in the country to outmaneuver his opponents and even stage-manage crises.
The four-month standoff in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province between the Iraqi security forces and Al-Qaeda linked militants seems to be Al-Maliki’s best bet in appealing for Shia votes.
Many now fear that Al-Maliki will also use the emergency measures he has proposed to parliament, even though the new law has not been ratified, if he feels the chances of his reelection have been compromised.
Others believe that he may resort to drumming up hostile sentiments in order to deepen the divide between the two branches of Islam in Iraq in an attempt to gain more Shia votes.
In the latest escalation, al-Maliki has threatened to use “the most extreme force” against Sunni rebels who seized a major dam on the Euphrates and cut water supplies to southern Shia provinces.
This has raised fears that al-Maliki could use the new dispute to whip up the Shias against the Sunnis in order to garner more support among the Shias ahead of the elections.
In another worrying development, al-Maliki ordered security to be tightened around Baghdad this week in what officials say was a precautionary measure against a possible incursion of Al-Qaeda fighters from Sunni-dominated satellite towns into the capital.
Obviously, all these moves indicate that al-Maliki, who is facing electoral difficulty at the polls, is using the sectarian card to perpetuate fears among Shias and herd Shia voters in his direction.
One reason behind al-Maliki’s increasing resort to sectarian hectoring is the mounting evidence that the race will not attract a large portion of the electorate, even among Shia voters.
Frustration with al-Maliki’s self-serving and mostly authoritarian politics, combined with the fact that he has failed to bring security to the country, is expected to damp down turnout in the elections for the Iraqi parliament.
In post-Saddam Iraq’s first poll in 2005, when the elections were trumpeted as Iraq’s “example of democracy,” about 79.6 per cent of the electorate cast their votes. Four years later, only 64 per cent of voters showed up in polling stations.
Another low turnout was registered in the local elections in 2013, when only 50 per cent of people voted although three million new voters were added to the electoral rolls.
Many now fear that the wave of political apathy that has been sweeping Iraq will also dent voter turnout at this month’s balloting, as the country’s leaders fail to resolve political and sectarian tensions.
In fact, regardless of voter participation Iraq’s elections are increasingly proving to be meaningless, as they continue to produce sectarianism instead of genuine democracy and the rule of the people.
If the country’s present pointless elections mean anything, it is that they will change nothing and will remain a scandal for the country’s democracy. Indeed, many people in Iraq see things this way already, even if the sectarian politicians do not.

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