6 April 2010

Iraqi Elections Will Determine the Fate of the Middle East - Editorial

When the people of Iraq go to the polling stations on March 7, the process will not only determine the future of their country, but also the fate of the Middle East. After a long and troublesome period, these elections are important since they will be held on the eve of the troop withdrawal. This situation will have a positive effect on the elections. The participation of people and the formation of different coalitions, and the rising consciousness of being Iraqi despite differences in sects and ethnicity are determining factors in the election. From this perspective, the salient features of these elections can be listed as follows:

A Surprise Alliance

After seven years of occupation, the people of Iraq are seriously fed up with the increasing ethnic and sectarian conflict/bombings/assassinations. Local elections in March 2009 were a clear triumph for parties that expressed Iraqi consciousness and a disappointment for sectarian groups. We should consider the fact that the role of Iraqi consciousness will increase in the March 2010 elections. At any rate, various political groups that realized this fact have opted to run in the elections as a block.

The Iraqiyya List, which includes representatives from a variety of sects and ethnicities, could surprise us as one of the stronger representatives of increasing power of idea of being Iraqi.

Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqi National Accord, which will take part in the elections as part of the Iraqiyya List, was able to craft the most surprising alliance and appears at its forefront as the leader. Ayad Allawi, a liberal Shiite, is preparing for the 2010 elections with a comprehensive alliance including: Saleh Al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi Front for National Dialogue; Vice-President and former leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Tariq Al-Hashimi’s, Renovation Movement; the brother of Atheel Al-Najafi, who is strong in Mosul and the leader of a movement known as Hadba List, Usama Al-Najafi’s Iraqis List; an important leader of the 1991 Shiite uprising, Iskandar Witwit; the Shiite tribal leader, Sheik Hussein Al-Shaalan and Deputy Prime Minister Rafi Al-Issawi.

Ayad Allawi managed to win 25 of the 275 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Saleh Al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue that take part in the coalition, represents second biggest Sunni Party and the fifth biggest group in the parliament with 11 MPs. Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi is the former leader of strongest Sunni Party in the 2005 elections, the Iraqi Islamic Party. Furthermore, as a politician who played a critical role in making various changes favoring Sunnis in the 2010 election law, his popularity is high.

The Ba’ath Effect

Despite being a Shiite, Allawi cooperates with the Sunni Party and groups affiliated with the Ba’athist Party, and this has also provoked debates. This is because the accountability and justice board, which was established during the post-occupation period by Paul Bremer, but has not operated effectively until today, first declared that 511, and then an additional 70 candidates, may not take part in the elections because they are Ba’athist. The list that was announced by the accountability and justice board included dozens of candidates from the Iraqi List, above all, MP Saleh Al-Mutlaq, which suggests that Maliki took this step to put obstacles in front of the rising Allawi.

Despite this, the decision by the Court of Appeals, which declared that those banned may participate in elections, increases the influence of the Allawi alliance on Sunnis.

With votes from both Sunnis and Shiites Allawi’s party could become Iraq’s number two party. However, Allawi’s votes from Shiites are likely to decrease with the accusations of his being Ba’athist. If we look at Allawi’s voter base, we see that he is in competition with Prime Minister Maliki and the Shiite politician, Ahmed Chalabi. In other words, Allawi will win very few votes from supporters of either Al Hakim or Sadr.

Criticism of Maliki

As Iraq prepares for the 2010 elections and right up to the last days before the elections, Prime Minister Maliki, whose success in the 2009 provincial elections went beyond expectations, is without a doubt the favorite. However, he is being accused of using state institutions, economic power and military structure to increase his authority and weaken the opposition.

According to the Shiite parties that oppose him, Prime Minister Maliki tried to consolidate his grip on government power, rather than sharing it with other partners in the government. The same criticism has also been aired by Kurdish and Sunni parties. The centralization of power and concentration in one man’s hands is dangerous, according to these parties, since this situation could lead over time to the rebirth of a new Ba’athism in the government.

Maliki’s Military Power

It is important that Prime Minister Maliki, who is accused of trying to become the only leader, is also accused of trying to expand his influence over the security forces. The Iraqi Army has approximately 600,000 soldiers, 400,000 police that are directly subordinate to him, and 5,000 specially trained Special Forces under the Prime Minister’s control. Furthermore, including the Sunni tribal Sahwa forces in his security forces strengthens Maliki’s hand. Consequently, Maliki is entering the elections with one million soldiers at his command. It is also known that Prime Minister Maliki gives special importance to the police force to obtain the “loyalty” of the military or to prevent coup against himself. Iraq’s police, equipped with heavy and high technology weapons, operate in a wide spectrum of activities ranging from border protection to military activities in disputed regions.

The Effect of Religion

Although participating parties and coalitions do not express a religious or sectarian views directly, it is clear that every party that is participating in the elections will get votes from specific sects or ethnic groups. In other words, Sunnis will vote predominantly for Sunni parties, Kurds for Kurdish parties, and Shiites for Shiite parties. We should note here that Shiite votes will be divided between the Dawa Party and the Iraqi National Alliance.

In the distribution of Shiite votes, undisputedly the most significant role among the elites will not be played by politicians, but by Shiite religious authorities. Religious leaders who rise to the rank of Ayatollah are the most influential people in Shiite social and political life. In a sense, Shiite religious leaders have moved beyond being the most important spiritual leaders of Shiite society to have determining role in political issues.

It is said that these authorities are not supporting any of the political parties in the 2010 elections, but calling on all parties to serve the nation. Shiite religious leaders openly advocate the inclusion of Sunnis and Kurds in the political process by saying, “Iraq is for everyone. No one has a right to oppose another or not take them into account.”

No matter how much religious, sectarian or ethnic difference exists; Iraq is experiencing a historical election on the eve of military withdrawal. The effects of these elections will not be limited to Basra, Baghdad or Erbil. Results from the voting booth will affect the entire Middle East from Iran to Israel and from Turkey to Saudi Arabia

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