The following is an election guide to Saturday’s provincial elections in Iraq. Tomorrow and Friday I will report on interviews with two spokesmen for opposing sides of the vote.
On Saturday, January 31, Iraq will conduct its first elections since 2005, when Iraqis went to the polls to select both their national parliament and provincial councils. This time, the election will decide only the provincial councils in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Still, the election is likely to be a turning point for Iraq. Which way it turns — toward greater democracy, or toward further instability and a return of violent resistance — depends on what happens on Saturday.
It’s not a pretty picture. The elections promise to be marred by violence, fraud, intimidation, vote-buying and bribery, bloc voting by tribes and ethnic constituencies, and undue influence by Shiite clerics.
If things don’t go smoothly, and if the elections don’t result in gains for parties that were shut out of the political process in 2005 — especially among Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni bloc — then it’s very likely that violence will increase once again. It’s even possible that many Sunnis will return to armed resistance, and some of them will rejoin Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Viewed most broadly, the election is a test of the ability of Iraq’s ruling coalition to cling to power despite having presided over a catastrophic collapse of Iraq’s economy, social services, and utilities, and despite widespread public perceptions that the ruling parties are guilty of vast corruption, mismanagement, and rule by paramilitary force through party militias. The four ruling parties are the two Shiite fundamentalist religious parties, the Islamic Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the two Kurdish separatist parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). According to many sources I’ve interviewed, including Iraqis involved in the elections, large numbers of Iraqis view all four ruling parties with disdain. They are blamed for their inability to provide basic services such as electricity, health care, fuel, water, and trash collection, all of which are intermittent at best and nonexistent at worst. They are blamed for their mismanagement of the economy, and especially Iraq’s oil, and for the unemployment rate that is estimated at 50 percent. Under ordinary circumstances, all four parties would suffer massive repudiation at the polls. But these are not ordinary circumstances.