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Another Step in the Right Direction?
 
Iraqi Provincial Elections 2009

6 February   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

According to many estimates, 15 million men and women went to the ballot box on 30th January and cast their votes in provincial elections whose results will now constitute the new local councils in 14 out of the 18 governorates of Iraq. The elections were not only important in enhancing Iraqi tentative steps toward effective democracy, they were also a corrective measure to the earlier elections of 2005 that were boycotted by some of the major constituent political parties, including Sunnis and Shi’is, and are therefore a more authentic litmus test of the overall demographic reality of the country today.

All in all, 14,400 candidates ran in the elections, of which 4000 were women, competing for 444 seats. Interestingly enough, well-known Iraqi bloggers such as Salam Pax and Twitter were emphasising that voters this time round were more focused on issues relating to local employment or public services rather than on American politics. Moreover, they were also trying to repudiate corruption and sectarianism, and in the process replacing their erstwhile vivid religious interest in the hereafter with a more vivid - and relevant - interest in the here and now. The major battlegrounds between the different parties occurred in Baghdad, Basra as much as in Ninewa (Mosul), Diyali (Baaquba) or Anbar (Ramadi).

As such, many pundits in the EU primarily viewed the 2009 elections as a victory of participation over complacency: few of us could forget the images of men and women coming out of the ballot boxes with their fingers dipped in the tell-tale purple ink that exhibited their fulfilment of their civic duties. But the preliminary results have also shown where the electoral cards are falling, with the prime minister strengthening his hand considerably, and his party leading strongly in parts of the country.

Clearly, a number of indicators intersect as a result of this latest Iraqi exercise in democracy.

The country is slowly on the mend, after years of violence, although we must temper our expectations by recalling that Iraq faces major - even crippling and violent - problems. Yet, inasmuch as they were successful, the electoral results also served as a bellwether to the forthcoming parliamentary elections, in view of the ballot-box popularity of the likes of PM Maliki’s Da’awa party, of Al-Hadba Sunni Arab Coalition, or even of Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi party. This is quite important when one recalls that the partially-boycotted elections of 2005 produced demographically-imbalanced, religiously-guided and exile-bred parties, and that the unsuccessful constitution-drafting process in 2005 also bedevilled the Iraqi parliamentary process. Given that local administrations in different governorates distribute resources of roughly up to US$ 2.4 billion, it is clear that their political hues and party allegiances could well influence the outcome of parliamentary elections.

From my own Eurocentric perspective, the Prime Minister’s ostensible success in the elections shows that a broader and more secular approach to politics has been opted by the electorate, shying away a bit from the sectarianism that has been a key card in Iraqi politics to date. One consequence of this surge in secularisation, and away from sacralisation, is that the outcome would also strengthen the hand of those who wish to maintain the unity of the country rather than fragment it.

Women too exerted a major influence in those elections. I would even suggest that the discussions focusing on the issue of defined quotas for women was constructive. Do women need quotas in elections? Or should they be ensured adequate representation - for instance, that one woman be chosen after every three men in any winning slate? Or should women lobby for a constitutional gender provision mandating that 25% of all seats in Parliament be applied to other elections as well? For me, this is part of the political emancipation of women through their engagement with the procedures of elections in order to harness those processes that would render future elections inevitably more gender-friendly, democratic and representative.

Another issue centres upon the representation of minority communities - like Christians, Sabaeans, Yazidis and Shabaks. In this instance, Article 50 of the Local Elections Law stipulated six seats for those groups. Yet the question is about giving those smaller communities more say and influence since they have been increasingly vilified and shunted from the political process.

Once the results of those elections become official toward the end of the month, the new Obama Administration might well conclude that Iraqis are getting ready to assume their responsibility in running their country coherently as well as in tackling the models of local governance that would apply as a precursor for things to come on the national level.

Looking at some of our own European models as much as the mistakes we committed over past years, I cautiously hope that those elections would assure Iraqis that the ballot box, not the gun, is the better choice for securing their rights, and that the cohesion of the country could be better managed with the right amount of political awareness and community-based aplomb.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   6 February

 

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