A Test of Democracy

The Majalla - Ten years after the invasion of the country, Iraq faces another round of elections against a backdrop of increased sectarian tensions and political intrigue.

On a recent visit to Iraq, I found little appetite or excitement for the upcoming local elections scheduled for April 20. One taxi driver said, “They’ve only recently finished working out how to share power from the last election, and now there is another vote.” Iraq’s fledgling democracy continues to be characterized by fragility as it faces its first elections since 2010. Political violence is increasing as we head towards the vote: on April 6, a suicide bomb and grenade attack killed at least twenty-two people and injured about fifty at a Sunni political rally in the eastern Iraqi city of Baquba.

To date, the country’s complex structures of political power have been a formula for gridlock in the name of national unity. A broad mix of ethnic, sectarian and tribal parties maneuver for an acceptable balance of power while Prime Minister Maliki continues to harvest authority directly to his office. These political institutions remain unable to peacefully channel dissent, with bloody violence a regular feature of what increasingly resembles an Iraqi Game of ThronesRussia Today has reported that the total number of politicians killed in the run-up to April’s elections now stands at eleven. In March, the spiraling death toll saw the government postpone the elections in the Sunni-majority governorates of Anbar and Nineveh for what it called security reasons. The cabinet, rejecting subsequent legal opposition to the move, confirmed that it was based on the requests of Anbar’s council, official entities, political blocs and parties, and the provinces’ dignitaries.

The decision to defer democratic elections was greeted with dismay by outside observers. The UN secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, said that there is “no democracy without elections, and the citizens in these two provinces have high hopes on these elections.”

Meanwhile, arriving on one of his now-ubiquitous unannounced visits, US Secretary of State John Kerry explained that “if the Iraqi democratic experiment is to succeed, all Iraqis must work together so that they can come together as a nation.”

The very notion of the Iraqi nation remains deeply contested, despite Prime Minister Maliki’s best efforts to rebuild the state as a centralized entity. Ethno-confessional politics continue to simmer below the surface, violently exploding in the regular bombings against mosques, markets and ministries that blight the country. There are real fears that the April vote in twelve of Iraq’s eighteen provinces could spark a more open conflict and drag the country back to the darker days of the civil war of 2006 to 2008, which tore neighborhoods apart and displaced millions.

Identity versus issue-based politics

Identity, rather than issue-based politics, continues to define Iraqi democracy. The political elite remains detached and largely unaccountable to the population, who continue to suffer from not just the insecurity that pervades the country, but also the massive levels of corruption and deteriorating public services that mean that in the stifling Iraqi summer there are still rolling blackouts and power cuts. Despite recent changes, de-Ba’athification remains viewed as a tool of state, determining who is and who is not acceptable to the incumbent political elite. Some 8,138 names are registered for the April 20 vote, but these large numbers are best understood as operating in a number of large political blocs. Middle East Online reported that the vast number of political posters that cover the walls of Iraq’s large cities make “no mention of ideology or policies and many don’t even featuring the candidate running for office.”

There are few experts as qualified to analyze Iraq’s politics as Norwegian academic Reidar Visser. In his view, Maliki has turned the State of Law coalition into a “monster sectarian alliance” that will go head-to-head with the alliance between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists. Maliki has steadily emerged as Iraq’s new strongman, and the elections are a test of both his scheming and his credibility prior to the 2014 national elections. Sayyid Ammar Al-Hakim, head of ISCI, has urged broad participation in the elections, saying, “Patriotic and sacred duty requires everyone to vote to choose representatives for the local governments in the governorates.” With religious leaders such as Hakim busy trying to turn out the vote, it is perhaps not surprising that analysts like Visser believe that politics in Iraq have become more sectarian rather than less.

In the western Sunni parts of the country, there have been large-scale protests against the Maliki government over recent months. Visser explained that “Iraqi Sunnis still find themselves sandwiched between extremist Al-Qaeda sympathisers and an Iraqi government they suspect of having too close links to Iran.” Since December, the protestors have demanded political reform, improvement of services, release of prisoners, and the nullification of the de-Ba’athification laws that are seen as a tool of the Shi’a victors’ justice rather than a device to bring a post-Saddam nation together. Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice president, Tareq Al-Hashemi, who has five death sentences against him, explained in March that “what is going on in Iraq is similar to the Arab Spring countries in the sense that it is an uprising against despotism, injustice and corruption.”

The uprising in Syria has certainly inspired a more assertive Sunni populace who believe that Hashemi’s experience and warnings of there being “no place for Sunnis in new [the] Iraq” to be true. Meanwhile, the deteriorating relationship between the Kurds and Maliki is limiting the number of allies the prime minister has in the Iraqi parliament. Yet despite claims that attacks on Sunni electoral rallies are attempts by Al-Qaeda to stir up sectarian strife, there is also a battle within the Sunni population and between politicians within the Iraqiya bloc. Nevertheless, a relaxation of the de-Ba’athification law, which was passed by the Iraqi Cabinet over the first weekend in April, shows a willingness to respond to the Sunni street protests.

Iraq’s current democratic experience cannot be the kind of representative and free government envisaged a decade ago by those in Washington and London. Instead, the jostle for votes reflects an elite-led, ethno-sectarian system in which corruption and oil-fuelled patronage means that average Iraqis have yet to reap the genuine benefits of a truly accountable system that they deserve. The April elections are a moment of heightened risk of greater communal conflict, rather than a process conferring greater legitimacy and stronger national cohesion. Indeed, the growing pains of the politics of the new Iraq are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


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