Friday, March 19, 2010

Will Iraq's election bring peace and democracy?

BY Iraqi standard, the second general election since the US intervention held on March 8th ended peacefully. Voter turnout, though lower at 62% than 76% in the previous one, was significant. However, with the US committed to withdraw its combat troops of 50,000 by August and the rest by end of next year, the election was held to take Iraq into comfort zone politically and from security point of view, given the fact that in recent times Iraq has made significant strides on both counts. The US has not so far seen any negative elements in the elections and has reiterated its commitment to withdraw. However, analysts are expressing apprehensions.

The elections have been fought by a number of electoral alliances where the Shias who are 60% of the population have organized themselves effectively. The Shia parties have come together under the State of Law Coalition (SLC) led by incumbent Prime Minister Nur Kamal Al-Maliki. SLC is dominated by his historically militant Shia Dawa party that broke off from the major Shia coalition the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) after the UIA had won the 2005 elections with 47% seats. The SLC has brought into the alliance smaller Shia and Sunni parties to give it secular credentials; to overtly distance it from Iran; and to gain acceptance among neighbours as an Iraqi national party. The second major coalition is the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) comprising Shia parties known for their anti-American; pro-Iran and militant views with leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr and Amar al Hakimi, leader of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, among its ranks. It had fought the 2005 elections as the United Iraqi Alliance and had won 47% of the votes but disintegrated before it could assume power. A third major coalition is the Iraqia led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that includes both Shia and Sunni parties with secular credentials that had contested the 2005 elections under Iraqi List and Iraqi Consensus and had won a quarter of the seats. The major Sunni coalition is the Iraqi Accord which is the remnant of the 2005 Iraqi Accord Front that had polled 16% of the seats. The Kurds have come together mainly under Kurdistan Alliance led by Jalal Talabani, Iraq's President.

Final results to be announced by the High Electoral Commission would not be known till the end of March. However, the presence of a good number of coalitions that lack cohesion suggests that there would be a lot of horse trading among themselves and parties before a government is in place. Last time, it took 5 months and the period was marked by serious violence and conflict. Many analysts are predicting something similar this time also. Under the Iraqi constitution, the leader of the coalition that wins the majority will be the next Prime Minister. However, going by the 2005 elections, smaller parties in the coalitions could switch between coalitions specially when there could be lures of political offices and other perks of power, making the outcome in choosing a Prime Minister a lengthy process. Nevertheless, the fight for Premiership is going to be between Maliki and a former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi going by indications at this stage. Maliki, following three massive terrorist attacks in Baghdad in August, October and December last year , seemed out of the race but has rallied strongly using his office and those of his Ministers who are all members of SLC, to distribute favours. At the time of writing this piece, ALC leads comfortably across southern Iraq, oil rich Basra and Baghdad. Allawi's coalition is winning the votes in predominantly Sunni Al-Anbar province and Kirkuk, inhabited by Arabs and Kurds. The militant Shiite INA appears early losers; losing even in predominantly Shia dominated Najaf and Babil to the SLC.

The United States would be leaving Iraq to its fate but not before spending a humungous sum of money and sacrificing the lives of over 4000 of men and women in uniform. If the lives of Iraqi men, women and children who have died in violence are taken into consideration, that number would be in hundreds of thousands. Additionally, US efforts in Vietnam War had cost it 686 billion in inflation adjusted US dollars. By April of last year, the US had spent US$ 696 billion in Iraq. The US would thus be hoping that its efforts in Iraq would not meet the same fate as in Vietnam that ended in conceding victory to the enemy, the Viet Cong. In Iraq the US would be leaving with the satisfaction that it has ended the tenure of Saddam Hussein and would not be leaving the country in the hands of the enemy. Unfortunately, it would not have the same feeling in terms of the country coming together under a government on which it could have total confidence for achieving peace and democracy.

Iraq remains as factionalized today as it was when the US invaded it to destroy WMDs that it never had, forcing the US to change its reason for the invasion to establishing democracy. Although violence has de-escalated, the conditions for re-escalation still remains and there is no guarantee that the country would not recede back into the same conditions that had existed before the US invasion; conditions such as ethnic/religious/regional divides that have encouraged dictatorships of which the one of Saddam Hussein was the worst. The latest elections may have in fact reinforced these divides. Iraq could be the proverbial dog's tail; straight as long as the US troops remain but become crooked again once they leave.

Iraq is, to use a cliché, at a historical cross road. If the incumbent Prime Minister returns with his coalition in which he has been able to bring representation of the other ethnic/religious groups, however small, on a non-secular platform, he would have the advantage of experience and control over the security forces that his administration and the US have painstakingly put together and trained. However, that good news could be bad news for peace in Iraq because SLC's gains would be at the expense of the INA that could encourage them towards violence to recoup their electoral losses. Nevertheless, the best chances of achieving peace and democracy in Iran lie with the SLC. If the Iraqia coalition wins the majority and Allawi becomes the Prime Minister, the Saudis would be pleased as they are unhappy with Maliki by the way he cornered Sunnis while in power. The Iranians, who have a big stake in Iraq, would in contrast be unhappy because they back Maliki ahead of Allawi as they dislike Allawi's secular credentials and alignment with Sunnis, in the event their favourite INA is out of contention. Everything is complicated at the moment. The elections could push Iraq towards more uncertain times, much to the discomfort of the US and its commitment to withdraw.

Published in The Daily Star, March 19th., 2010

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