Hopes for Iraq's elections
Will next week's elections be enough to put Iraq back on its own feet after years of turmoil, asks Salah Hemeid
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Iraq's Oil Minister Hussein Al-Shahristani embraces an Iraqi tribal leader as he attends an electoral campaign rally in Baghdad
Only a few days before Iraqis go to the polls to choose their second parliament in the post- Saddam era, the country's political leaders are appealing to millions of sceptical and disgruntled voters to show up for the balloting amid fears of a limited turnout in the country's most decisive elections to date.
The drive culminates a heated election campaign, which has been marred by allegations of fraud in registration, vote-selling, foreign funding and the use of religious figures to promote candidates.
It has also sparked fears that the elections will not give a decisive result and that Iraq's rival political groups will remain deadlocked over who should form a new government. Such an outcome would bring back harsh memories of the sectarian tensions that inflamed communal hostilities following the 2003 US-led invasion.
The government has imposed tough security measures, including limited curfews, the closure of Iraq's airports and border crossings, a ban on the use of cars and a four-day government holiday ahead of polling day.
However, one of the main concerns in the elections is the possibility of a limited turnout by voters disenchanted with what they see as the incompetent, self-interested and corrupt parliament brought in by the 2005 elections.
Expectations of a poor turnout have raised concerns among Shia religious groups, which achieved a sweeping victory in the 2005 elections that were held in the midst of a fierce sectarian struggle and a Sunni boycott protesting against what the Sunnis saw as a US-led, Shia- dominated election process.
Sunni voters are expected to turn out at the polls in large numbers this time around, hoping that they can send more members to Iraq's 325- seat parliament and have a greater say in the country's affairs. Yet, Sunni leaders fear that apathy will also cause some Sunnis to stay away.
The country's Independent Elections Commission has not disclosed statistics of how many Iraqis from the nearly 20 million eligible voters have registered to vote in the 7 March elections. However, accounts estimate that between 15 and 40 per cent of those who have the right to vote have registered, a much lower figure than the 79 per cent of voters who participated in the elections five years ago.
On Friday, the Shias' most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, encouraged his followers to cast their votes in the forthcoming elections. A day later, Ammar Al-Hakim, leader of one of the biggest Shia blocs, the Iraqi National Alliance, also urged his supporters to turn out en masse in Sunday's balloting.
"The failure of successive governments to meet your legitimate expectations should not lead you to frustration and despair," he said in an address. "If you stay out, or make a hasty choice, that won't solve the problems, but will bring opportunists and inefficient people to posts of responsibility."
Sunni leaders have also tried to mobilise their constituencies and urge them to vote. Vice president Tariq Al-Hashimi called on Sunnis to "creep" to the polling stations on the day of the elections. "You should translate your anger, pain and frustration into a historic victory," he said on Sunday.
However, tensions leading up to the balloting show that despite the recent relative quiet, the ethnic and religious rivalries that fueled earlier sectarian conflicts in the country remain largely unresolved. The election campaigns have also underlined the fact that deep ethnic and sectarian divisions are putting the country's future in the balance, with the elections issuing in either another sect-based government or a national and all-inclusive regime.
As the campaigns moved into top gear this week, allegations of fraud have been mounting. One popular allegation concerns allegedly substantial amounts of money flowing to candidates from mostly neighbouring countries.
Some observers have also accused political groups in the government of using state resources in their election campaigns. In one such allegation, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is said to have given handguns as gifts to tribal sheikhs while campaigning in southern Shia provinces.
There have also been widespread concerns about irregularities in the run-up to the elections, ranging from the possibility of double voting, stuffing ballot boxes, increasing the number of registered voters, and outright rigging. In the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, where Arabs and Kurds are competing for control, the Arabs say that thousands of Kurds from outside the cities have been added to the electoral rolls.
Adnan Al-Pachachi, a key Sunni member of the Iraqi List led by the self-proclaimed secular Shia Iyad Allawi, has accused the government of printing some seven million extra ballot papers, implying that these could be used to stuff ballot boxes.
There have also been allegations of vote buying. In several towns, representatives of the various blocs have reportedly offered impoverished or disgruntled voters money in exchange for their votes. Some reports suggest that as much as $100 is being paid for a single vote.
Another allegation is that rival candidates have been fraudulently claiming that they have the backing of religious leaders who carry enormous weight. On Monday, Al-Maliki's party accused a rival Shia group of breaking campaign rules by circulating flyers bearing the likeness of top Shia cleric Al-Sistani and saying that he supports the Iraqi National Alliance.
Al-Sistani himself has not endorsed candidates in the 7 March elections and has tried to remain above the political fray.
Although the Elections Commission says that it has taken all necessary measures to prevent fraud and irregularities, many candidates remained sceptical. On Monday, Allawi warned that violence would erupt in the country if the results of the elections were fraudulent.
The March elections are supposed to showcase a peaceful country and help Iraq to stand on its own feet after US forces go home. However, if the elections are challenged as unfair and undemocratic, this could lead to greater instability and cast doubt over the whole political process.
The election wrangling suggests the core issues that drove the previous violence, such as power- sharing among the minority Sunnis, majority Shias and the Kurds, remain unresolved and may even be sharpening, raising grave questions about what will happen after the elections.
The dilemma Iraqis face is what will happen if there is no straightforward outcome, as is highly expected, and the country's political leaders remain deadlocked for months on who should form a new government. A prolonged stalemate would trigger another period of instability and even a repeat of the sectarian strife that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in 2006-2007.
By and large, the post-election period promises to be more perilous than the polling itself. The Shias are expected to retain a majority in the new parliament, but they are sharply divided and have yet to come up with a strong and credible leadership.
On Sunday, Al-Maliki said he was willing to form a new government coalition with the rival Iraqi National Alliance after months of refusing to do so. However, the Shia rivals have also said that they would only be ready to form such a coalition in the interests of finding a new leader of the government.
For their part, the country's Sunnis, who have mobilised behind Allawi's secular and nationalistic ticket, hoping that the Shia bloc will fall apart, could make gains in the elections, though these are unlikely to be anywhere near the majority that would allow them to form a government.
If the Sunnis feel that the election results keep them marginalised, they might choose to be the spoilers of the political process again, creating a power vacuum.
That leaves the Kurds as the most influential political players in the country, or the king makers who could force both the Shias and the Sunnis to seek their alliance, but on Kurdish terms.
Kurdish leaders have made it clear that their support for any new Iraqi government would come at a high price, such as the recognition of the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk as Kurdish.
Many Iraqis hope that Sunday's elections will open a new chapter that heals a divided nation and brings lasting peace. However, regrettably this may be only a distant dream.