A high turnout seems likely in Iraq provincial elections on Saturday judging from yesterday’s voting by hospital doctors, prisoners, policemen, soldiers, and other special categories. Despite sporadic violence, the overall improvement in security will boost participation as voters elect provincial legislatures in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces.
The elections will result in a “great change in the political map“, according to Dr Hamid Fadel, a politics professor in the University of Baghdad. He told Asharq al-Awsat that the “lists that controlled the most seats in the past will not win the same percentage of seats in these elections because the people will vote depending on the past achievements and there were none in the past period.”
In Al-Basra, security forces attacked journalists and destroyed their cameras as they tried to record prisoners being told which candidates to support. Al-Hayat reports that one prisoner announced: “I don’t know for whom I am voting but a cleric wrote a number on my hand and I will vote for that number”
Iraqpundit cites an Iraqi newspaper story that religious and pan-Arabist forces may lose out to secular parties. Secular candidates will win 42 percent of the vote, and religious parties 31 percent, according to a poll by the parliament’s Iraqi Information Center, based on a sample of 4500 Iraqis across all provinces. Respondents faulted the religious parties for corruption and failing to deliver basic services such as electricity and water.
If secular parties do make gains, they will be against considerable odds. “The major religious parties are better organized, better funded, better armed, and control the media and … government departments that dispense jobs and social services,” according to Michael Knights, who runs the Iraq program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The seculars are typically divided and poorly organized … As a result, the Iraqi people don’t currently have a credible alternative option to the Islamists in many provinces.”
Liberal democrats like Ali al-Rahal agree that their impoverished parties cannot compete with tribal and religious parties that have benefitted from U.S. largesse and patronage as a result of the surge. The Washington Post reports:
Rahal is a leader of the Sons of the Two Rivers Movement, a group of secular liberals running under the slogan “Together for Development.” Shiites and Kurds sit on their board. So do a Christian and a Jew, one of the handful left in the country. They advocate human rights, transparency, an end to corruption and the rehabilitation of Iraq. “We consider this real democracy,” he said.
And no one seems to be listening. No one really can. The movement has almost no way to get the word out. One party member sold his car for $4,000. Another donated $1,250. They are considering auctioning off their red and gold furniture, lonely as it is in an office bereft of posters, party literature and the campaign pens tribal candidates pass out.
“We can’t even afford these,” Rahal said, waving a leaflet the size of a playing card for one of their candidates. “And this is something simple!”
“The work of democracy building has received relatively little attention and funding compared to the expense of keeping troops in the country and the cost of reconstruction projects,” notes Ken Wollack, head of the National Democratic Institute. Genuine democracy may take decades to develop and “no one should pronounce democracy either a success or failure after only five years or a handful of elections,” he told a State Department e-discussion today.
Whatever the election results, the Washington Institute’s J. Scott Carpenter and Michael Knights believe the provincial elections will provide a “good case study of what happens when an electoral process in an unstable country receives insufficient attention and support from the international community” and provide pointers for future policy:
Looking forward, the Obama administration should support a stronger role for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq in forthcoming district and subdistrict elections, which must take place within six months. These competitions can absorb many of the candidates who failed to win a provincial council seat; indeed, district-level politics are a good starting place for aspirant “independent” politicians with strong local connections. In the longer term, the international community needs to incorporate the lessons of these provincial polls into the drafting of a new permanent provincial elections law (to replace the current one-time law), a Kirkuk special elections law, a campaign financing law, and international support to the national elections scheduled for December 31, 2009.