By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 6, 2010; A08
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.
The poll showed that Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former prime minister who served in that job for less than a year, has higher approval ratings. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they held him in high regard, while 28 percent said they disliked him.
Allawi leads the Iraqiya slate, which is made up predominantly of Sunni and secular parties. A strong showing at the polls, U.S. officials and analysts say, would suggest Iraqis prefer politicians who are willing to cross sectarian lines and for whom religion and government are separate.The Sunni electorate
Having boycotted the 2005 election, many Sunni voters are banking on the success of Iraqiya and, to a lesser extent, the established religious Sunni parties to regain power from Islamist Shiite leaders whom many Sunnis view as co-opted by Iran.
Some Iraqiya supporters see Allawi as a potential benevolent authoritarian ruler -- a form of leadership many Iraqis say they would welcome after seven years of bloodshed and lawlessness.
"If Ayad wins, he will become a dictator," said Ahlam Aboud Karim, 33, as she shopped for vegetables in central Baghdad. "If we have a strong man, we don't need a democracy. A strong leader is better. Democracy won't work in Iraq."
The bloc lost key figures in a recent purge of candidates over supposed ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. The vetting was conducted by rival politicians in the Iraqi National Alliance, a religious and predominately Shiite bloc.
Despite the dismissals, and perhaps in part because of them, Sunnis are expected to vote in droves. The elections could dramatically alter the political landscape in two camps that dominate the current government. The two main Kurdish parties are threatened by the growing appeal of a breakaway faction called Change, which could compromise the ability of the Kurds to act in lockstep in Baghdad, which has given them considerable influence in an otherwise fragmented political system.
The Shiite alliance, which includes all the religious Shiite parties that formed the last government except Maliki's, lacks a front-runner for the premiership. Analysts say that the alliance is likely to splinter after the vote as new coalitions are drawn up and that a violent fight between rival Shiite parties cannot be discounted.
Both blocs may struggle to attract voters disillusioned by the current parliament's lackluster performance. Lawmakers have failed to tackle some of the most important political issues facing the country, including an oil law and the future of Kirkuk, a northern city fiercely contested by Kurds and Arabs.Voter-fraud concerns
Mesen Fanar Dawood, a merchant at a Baghdad pet shop, said he will be at the polls Sunday. But he was all but certain that the vote would be rigged.
"Iraqi people need a strong man, they need a strong man like Saddam Hussein," he said, voicing his dislike of the brand of democracy in today's Iraq. "But this is all we have available. If you leave your ballot blank, it will be abused by another person."
The recriminations over alleged vote rigging and disenfranchisement have already started.
On Friday, Allawi complained that members of his bloc and others were being harassed, detained and even killed.
Thousands of special voters who took to the polls Thursday could not find their names on the rosters, and Allawi said he worries that the 7 million extra ballots printed by Iraq's electoral commission could be used to rig the vote.
He warned that an election seen as illegitimate or fraudulent would pose a serious threat to stability in Iraq and the region.
"If violations continue and we find they've reached a serious level, we'll take the appropriate actions," Allawi said in a news conference. He would not say what those actions would be. "We can't accept the confiscation of the Iraqi voice."