The election campaign season began officially in Iraq last month. Like much else in the political life of modern Iraq, these elections, scheduled for January 30, have led to fierce competition. Nowhere can the intensity of electoral clamoring better be seen than in the number of electoral tickets competing for seats in the 275-member National Assembly. More than 7,200 candidates belonging to some 230 political “entities” (kiyanat) have fielded candidates in 83 electoral lists. In addition to electing members to a national legislature in which at least 25 percent of the seats are to be held by women, voters will also vote to elect members of provincial councils for Iraq’s 18 provinces. Those in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north will vote to elect members of a regional Kurdish parliament as well: this Kurdish region is comprised of the provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyyah.
According to Iraq’s Interim State Administration Law, the country will be treated as a single electoral district. Voters will cast their votes for electoral lists, rather than individual candidates. The higher his or her name is ranked on a list, the better that candidate’s chance of winning a seat. The assembly will be charged with the responsibility of electing a full-term government and drafting a permanent constitution.
A 228-candidate ticket formed under the auspices of Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Hussayni al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shi’a ‘alim, is a front-runner in the election. Candidates on the United Iraqi Coalition list include Islamist, secular and independent politicians. The UIC brings together major Shi’a parties, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the two main branches of the Da’awah party, the Islamic Da’awah Party and the Islamic Da’awah Party – Iraq Organization. The first name on the list is that of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of SCIRI. He is followed by Ibrahim al-Ja’afary, spokesman of the Islamic Da’awah Party. Other prominent names on the UIC ticket include Iraqi National Congress chairman Ahmad Chalabi, members of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council Abd al-Karim al-Muhammadawi, Muwaffaq al-Rubay’i and Sallamah al-Khafaji, and nuclear physicist Hussein al-Shahristani, who was imprisoned for more than a decade during Saddam Hussein’s rule for refusing to work in Iraq’s nuclear programme. Shahristani was the head of a six-man committee appointed by Ayatullah Sistani to form the UIC list.
A 240-name ticket headed by interim prime minister Iyad Allawi is formidable competition for the Sistani-supported list. It includes Iraqi president Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar and several government ministers. In addition to having the US’s support, the prime minister, who worked with American intelligence during his exile while in opposition to Saddam’s rule, also seems to enjoy significant support in the official Arab political order. In some quarters of the official Arab establishment there has been a shift of late towards supporting Allawi. The Arab media, mostly funded by Arab governments, have shown a new interest in giving Allawi a platform. For instance, the Saudi-financed al-Arabiyya satellite TV channel has been giving Allawi significant air-time.
In an attempt to exploit latent anti-Iranian feeling, which is common in Iraq, Hazim al-Sha’alan, Allawi’s cantankerous defence minister, has made fierce criticisms of Iran and the UIC. In a throwback to the crude propaganda of Saddam’s era, Sha’alan has accused Iran of meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, and the UIC of being infested with Iranian agents, mentioning Shahristani by name. He has also described the UIC ticket as an “Iranian list.”
Even if Allawi’s list does not score a major victory, the US-backed strongman himself stands a good chance of returning to power after the elections. Allawi is also the preferred choice of some Sunni Arab circles and major Kurdish political trends. To both these groups Allawi brings reassurance of a sort. For Sunni Arabs, from whom the former Ba’ath party regime drew significant support, a government headed by Allawi, a former Ba’athist, assuages some of their fears of loss of power and influence that were exacerbated by the process of de-Ba’athification after the fall of Saddam. For the major Kurdish political groups, who are largely secular in their political outlook, Allawi, a secular Shi’a, is preferable to an “Islamist” Shi’a prime minister.
Iraqi Shi’as overwhelmingly favour pushing the political process forward. Because of their being a majority, numerical democracy seemingly works in their favour. Sistani has called on people to take part in the elections; on December 23 his office asked his representatives throughout Iraq to urge people to vote in the election. The only significant Shi’a force that opposes elections is the movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr. On December 10, just one day after the UIC ticket was unveiled, Sadr issued a strong criticism of parliamentary politics. In a statement read out at the al-Muhsin Mosque in Baghdad, Sadr said: “The elections aim to separate the Iraqi from his religion. When people vote for politicians, secularists, those who cooperate with the occupation, they will not think of Allah.” During talks leading to the formation of the UIC, Sadr reportedly insisted on including a call for ending the occupation as a major plank of the electoral coalition’s platform. However, his demand was rejected. Instead, UIC leaders have talked of negotiating a date for the “withdrawal” of American troops.
The outcome of the elections is expected to occasion a shift in political power to the Iraqi Shi’a community. The Shi’as (who, according to most estimates, constitute about 60 percent of the population of Iraq) have mostly been marginalized since the establishment of the Iraqi nation-state after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Caliphate. The prospect of this shift explains to some extent the gaping divide over the question of participation in elections, which is unfolding along sectarian lines in Iraq.
In contrast to the Shi’as’ quasi-consensus in support of elections, the Sunnis, who are worried about losing influence and power to the Shi’as, are divided along three lines: boycotting the elections, postponing them, and participation. The Association of Muslim Scholars has urged Iraqis to boycott the elections, which they say would be held “over the bodies of those killed in Fallujah and the blood of those injured there.” Shaykh Harith al-Dari, secretary-general of AMS, argues for an end to the occupation before elections are held. “Elections and the transition of power are worthless as long as Iraq is under occupation,” he has said.
For their part the insurgents, who are active mainly in predominantly Sunni areas, have voted against elections by their armed activities, intimidation and threats against participation. On December 24, groups of armed men distributed a statement in Buhruz, some 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) northeast of Baghdad, threatening anyone who takes part in the elections with “bitter death.” The leaflets bore the logo of the deposed Ba’ath Party and were signed by a group calling itself Kata’ib al-Awda (Return Brigades). Three officials working for the Independent Higher Commission for Elections were stopped while driving in Baghdad, dragged out of their car and executed by unknown assailants. Such acts of intimidation and violence will almost certainly result in a low turnout in areas where insurgents are active.
Another strand of thought within the Iraqi Sunni community calls for postponing the elections. This is the preference of groups such as the Iraqi Islamic Party, led by Muhsin Abd al-Hamid. The IIP is not against holding elections in principle, but calls for putting off the vote for at least six months to allow more time for the security situation to improve. Yet, despite its desire to postpone the general election, the IIP has presented a 275-candidate ticket. Proponents of postponement argue that violence in the predominantly Sunni areas is likely to depress voter-turnout if elections are held this month. Another argument is that delaying the ballot would give political leaders more time to persuade Sunni ulama and others to forsake their boycott of the electoral process. Some Kurdish groups have also shown a certain degree of ambivalence. They had originally shown some sympathy for the idea of postponement, yet they now support holding the elections on time. A third trend within the Sunni community has come out strongly in support of elections. President Yawar, a Sunni, is one of these. Supporters of participation fear that the boycott could leave the Iraqi Sunnis in the political wilderness.
Cancelling or postponing the elections is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, either presents the current Iraqi government with a constitutional predicament. The State Administration Law, which constitutes a provisional constitutional document for Iraq, states clearly that elections must be held no later than the end of this month. The decision not to hold elections on time would require an amendment of the State Administration Law. The prospect of such an amendment is nil because of the current polarization gripping the country over the issue of elections. Another legal complication is that the timetable for elections has been adopted by UN Security Council resolution 1546, which means that any decision on postponement needs the approval of the UN.
Politically, either cancellation or postponement would dent the credibility of both the Allawi government and the Bush administration. Both have been adamant that elections will be held on schedule. Any delay will be interpreted as a significant victory for the resistance. Moreover, even a delay of as much as six months is unlikely to achieve a safer environment for balloting. If anything, it would be an encouragement for resistance-fighters to step up their activities.
Worse still for the Americans, a delay is likely to make Ayatullah Sistani less “reasonable”. He has so far refrained from advocating armed resistance. Last spring he brought the people into the streets for large demonstrations to put pressure on the Americans to agree to hold elections. Alienating the Shi’as might lead to some important segments of Iraqi Shi’as turning their backs on the political process and organising their own armed insurgency, parallel to the one that is dogging the US and Iraqi forces in central and western Iraq.
If the elections are held on January 30, this will be a milestone in Iraq’s modern political history. Iraqis are supposed to go to the polls on two other occasions this year: to vote in a referendum on a new constitution and, if the constitution is ratified, to vote for another parliament by the end of December. Even if this were to happen according to plan, however, it is very unlikely to bring about internal peace or national harmony in Iraq. The current insurgency, which has turned large areas of the country into virtual no-go zones for Westerners, government officials and Iraqi security forces, is likely to continue. Sunnis will be poorly represented because of the effects of a boycott and intimidation. This in turn will alienate them further from the political process and strengthen the insurgency. Worse still, it could also strengthen the sectarian and ethnic divide, which is already widened by the effects of war and highly sectarian acts of violence.
The elections will produce few winners and many losers, so more parts of the Iraqi political mosaic are likely to become alienated from the political process. A political crisis of theseproportions, that unfolds against the backdrop of an on-going insurgency, will shatter many hopes in Washington. For one thing, it will reduce predictions by some American officials (who hope that elections will enable them to bring home substantial numbers of US troops) to pipe-dreams, as happened to their optimistic forecasts of jubilant Iraqis showering invading troops with rice and flowers. The elections will eventually lay bare America’s strategic impasse in Iraq. Not holding the polls on time will be a victory for the armed resistance, yet sticking to the timetable will probably exacerbate instability and, in turn, make worse the US’s massive difficulties in Iraq.