How Elections Can Work in an Unstable Country

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA has suggested that elections may not be constructive in countries where there is no "freedom from fear" or where the rule of law and civil society are undeveloped. Iraq may be about to prove him wrong. Though security is fragile, the constitution is still disputed and institutions such as courts and a free media remain works in progress, the country's third national election since 2005 is scheduled for Saturday -- and it is looking like another important step toward stabilization.

The campaign for positions in 14 provinces so far has been a major improvement over the previous Iraqi elections -- not to mention the rigged or tightly limited ballots staged by most other Arab countries. Some 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 seats; in contrast to the last provincial vote, in January 2005, candidates are identified by name rather than being presented anonymously on a party slate. Thousands are openly competing in Iraqi cities and towns once paralyzed by violence or controlled by al-Qaeda. Blast walls have been papered with posters, and much of the debate is focused on improving government services. Violence, which spiked four years ago, so far has been a minor factor: Two candidates have been reported killed, and U.S. and Iraqi casualties this month are among the lowest since the war began.

In 2005, voters mostly chose among sectarian coalitions, and most Sunnis boycotted the vote. This month, Sunni parties are actively competing, and though religious parties remain important, the major Shiite and Sunni factions are jockeying among themselves. This means that Sunni politicians will be far better represented in local government and that the leaders themselves will be more popular, secular and diverse. In southern Iraq, an important debate over whether Shiites should support a strong national government or a Shiite-dominated federal region is being fought out by the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which controls many provincial councils.

Mr. Maliki has gravitated toward a secular nationalism: His coalition is called State of Law. Once dismissed as hopelessly weak, the prime minister has grown so strong that some accuse him of plotting to construct a new Iraqi autocracy. For the moment, that seems unlikely, given the balances built into Iraq's new political system. But Mr. Maliki's platform does augur an Iraq that will be relatively secular, that will assert its independence from Iran and that will remain allied with the United States in the fight against al-Qaeda. If that prospect is advanced this weekend, Iraqis -- and their American partners -- will have elections to thank.


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