Iraqi elections should give a hint of democracy's chances

On March 7, 2010, millions of Iraqis voted to elect lawmakers who will rule the country for years as U.S. forces withdraw. The election was marred by dozens of attacks that killed nearly 40 people and underscored the security problems the incoming government will face.
By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 6, 2010

BAGHDAD -- When Iraqis go to the polls Sunday, they will do more than elect a new government to run a country still reeling seven years after the United States invaded it.

After the ballots are counted, voters will have provided the first conclusive evidence of what kind of democracy is likely to take root in the heart of the Middle East -- if one does at all.

Beyond selecting candidates, Iraqis on Sunday will indicate whether they favor religious candidates more than secular ones and authoritarian-minded rulers over those committed to the principles of traditional democracies.

If winners act quickly to form a new government that is seen as legitimate and representative, the Obama administration will have a better chance of making good on its promise to disengage from Iraq responsibly and draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of summer.

If losers object and winners compete for months over top jobs in the new administration, Iraq could again slip into post-election chaos. That is an ominous prospect at a time when sectarian tensions appear to be on the rise and the U.S. military is disassembling the security framework that is the backbone of a deeply fractured and dysfunctional country.

"This is a very important election," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in an interview. "It will decide the future of the democratic process in Iraq. It will be developed or stopped."

Iraq's political landscape is more diverse and fractured than it has ever been, with 6,529 candidates from 86 political entities competing.

Few have as much on the line as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a controversial but still markedly popular figure appointed in 2006 to the country's top job as a compromise candidate widely perceived as weak and malleable.

Instead of joining the coalition of predominantly religious Shiite parties that catapulted him to power, Maliki is running on his own slate, State of Law, which has wooed voters with promises of security and a more efficient government.

But many voters associate Maliki with tenuous security, ailing infrastructure and widespread corruption.

On Friday, Maliki made last-ditch efforts to defend his government and woo more votes. "We kept Iraq's unity from being fractured and achieved a high level of security. Iraq is no longer an occupied state," he said. But in an interview with CNN, he said he would be willing to ask U.S. troops to stay longer if needed.

A February public opinion poll conducted by the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute showed that 43 percent of respondents have a favorable view of Maliki, while 47 percent view him negatively.

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