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Iraqis Go to the Polls: What to Watch For

A guide to Iraq's first election since 2005.

On Saturday, January 31, Iraq will conduct its first elections since 2005, when Iraqis went to the polls to select both their national parliament and provincial councils. This time, the election will decide only the provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Still, the election is likely to be a turning point for Iraq. Which way it turns -- toward greater democracy, or toward further instability and a return of violent resistance -- depends on what happens on Saturday.

It's not a pretty picture. The elections promise to be marred by violence, fraud, intimidation, vote-buying and bribery, bloc voting by tribes and ethnic constituencies, and undue influence by Shiite clerics.

If things don't go smoothly, and if the elections don't result in gains for parties that were shut out of the political process in 2005 -- especially among Iraq's disenfranchised Sunni bloc -- then it's very likely that violence will increase once again. It's even possible that many Sunnis will return to armed resistance, and some of them will rejoin Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Viewed most broadly, the election is a test of the ability of Iraq's ruling coalition to cling to power despite having presided over a catastrophic collapse of Iraq's economy, social services, and utilities, and despite widespread public perceptions that the ruling parties are guilty of vast corruption, mismanagement, and rule by paramilitary force through party militias. The four ruling parties are the two Shiite fundamentalist religious parties, the Islamic Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the two Kurdish separatist parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). According to many sources I've interviewed, including Iraqis involved in the elections, large numbers of Iraqis view all four ruling parties with disdain. They are blamed for their inability to provide basic services such as electricity, health care, fuel, water, and trash collection, all of which are intermittent at best and nonexistent at worst. They are blamed for their mismanagement of the economy, and especially Iraq's oil, and for the unemployment rate that is estimated at 50 percent. Under ordinary circumstances, all four parties would suffer massive repudiation at the polls. But these are not ordinary circumstances.

The election is also seen as a referendum of sorts on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Dawa party is a powerful player in Saturday's vote. Although Maliki's Dawa has split and split again -- it is down to a miniscule six seats in the 275-member parliament, after schisms -- it benefits from Maliki's heavyhanded use of political power as prime minister. Despite Dawa's history as a secretive, cell-based and cult-like religious movement with obscurantist Shiite views, Maliki is drawing electoral support from Iraqis who view him as a strongman, sort of a Saddam-lite ruler, and he has recast himself as a nationalist. He's built a fiefdom in the Iraqi army, shifting and reappointing generals who support him, in a naked effort to turn the army into Dawa's private militia. He's used a pair of security organizations that report directly to the prime minister's office to carry out arrests and intimidation of rival politicians and parties, especially against Muqtada al-Sadr's allies. He's constructed paramilitary "tribal councils" in provinces all over Iraq, lavishing tens of millions of dollars in government funding on these organizations, which are in fact nothing more than outright arms of Maliki's office. And he's using the Iraqi government's state-owned media openly on his behalf.

Here's what to watch for on Saturday:

First, can the religious parties hold on? According to many accounts, liberal, nationalist, and secular Iraqis believe that the population at large is disenchanted with Dawa, ISCI and the Sadrists. Will that result in gains for parties of a distinctly secular approach, especially the party led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has broad appeal to many nationalists and Sunnis? Or will the built-in advantages of Dawa and ISCI, who control the media and the government, allow them to continue as dominant forces?