Will Iraq's Upcoming Elections Bring Stability, or More Turmoil?

WASHINGTON, Jan 11, 2010 (IPS) - Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections are widely considered a barometer of the country's progress and march toward stability, but they could also have a serious destabilizing impact, as the U.S. prepares for a major reduction of its troops by August.

A volatile and divided nation, Iraq is desperately attempting to recover from decades of war and dictatorship. Washington has promoted elections in the hope that the ballot box will become the medium through which political scores are settled.

The U.S. is hoping to see a more stable Iraq emerge from the March elections to allow for its timely withdrawal of troops, but increasing tensions in parts of Iraq threaten to add to the country's myriad problems.

The abrupt decision by Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC) on Jan. 7 to bar 14 political groups, mostly representing Sunni Arabs, from running in the upcoming elections could turn the much-awaited polls into a vehicle for more instability.

The AJC, in charge of ensuring that high-ranking former and current Baath Party officials of former president Saddam Hussein will not return to government, said its decision was based on new "evidence" showing connections between the 14 groups and the Baath Party.

The most prominent among these groups is the National Dialogue Front, led by the secular Sunni politician Salih Mutlak who has been part of the country's political process over the past seven years despite his uneasy relations with many Shia Arab and Kurdish groups.

Elections have been viewed as especially crucial in reintegrating the Sunni Arab minority into Iraq's political process by giving them a proportional representation in the country's governance to compel them to renounce the insurgency.

Sunni Arabs who held most of the senior jobs in Saddam Hussein's government saw their regions become the primary battleground of a bloody struggle between insurgents on the one hand and the Iraqi government and U.S. forces on the other.

Central to the national reconciliation plans in Iraq, as Washington hopes, is the return of more moderate elements of the Baath Party to the current political process. Although outlawed in Iraq, the party is said to have a presence outside Iraq's borders, particularly in Syria.

If approved by the country's electoral commission, the decision to exclude the 14 parties from the elections could alienate significant sections of the Sunni Arab population, especially in light of Mutlak's rising popularity among Sunni voters, as the provincial elections in late 2008 showed. Mutlak's faction also did well in the provincial election last year, managing to come second among several Sunni groups.

"It will have serious consequences and will reduce Sunni representation and especially change their attitude toward the powers that be," Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, which has issued several reports on resolving Iraq's internal conflicts, told IPS.

Since late 2007, major Sunni insurgent groups have abandoned the insurgency in the hopes of finding a foothold in the country's politics, but their relations with the Shia-led government in Baghdad remain relatively tense.

Calling the decision by the AJC "political and linked to foreign will", Mutlak also appeared to implicitly accuse Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of standing behind the decision.

A statement by the head of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with Iraq, Scottish lawmaker Struan Stevenson, cited Mutlak's "uncompromising positions" against Iran's "meddling" in Iraq as the "true" reason behind the decision.

In an ambitious strategy, Mutlak had joined forces with former secular Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shia Arab, and current Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, to create a powerful cross-sectarian coalition for the future elections known as al-Iraqia.

Mutlak has vowed to seek to overturn the decision through the country's Supreme Court or, if necessary, the United Nations. Other al-Iraqia leaders have threatened to boycott the elections if the current AJC decision is upheld, something that could discourage more Sunnis from participating in the vote.

Severe tensions among political factions in Baghdad are nothing new, but elections have now heightened tensions in the country's safest and most stable region as well: Kurdistan.

In recent weeks, tensions between the party of the incumbent Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the major Kurdish opposition group, Gorran (Change), have escalated to alarming levels. Several Gorran activists have been targeted by unknown assailants, leading to the death of one Gorran supporter in Sulaimaniya Province, the seat of Talabani's power.

Adding fuel to the fire is the increasingly hostile rhetoric in the two party's media outlets and meetings where Talabani and his one-time deputy and current Gorran head, Noshirwan Mustafa, have exchanged brazen accusations over their past and current roles in Kurdish politics.

The heightened tensions have raised fears that there could be an outbreak of violence in Kurdistan. Kurdish political leaders convened an urgent meeting to discuss the situation, calling on the hostile parties to exercise self-restraint and end the media war.

"We will not allow Kurds to shed each other's blood. It is true that we have different opinions but these differences have to be settled inside parliament... and should not be deepened to disrupt Kurdistan's [security] situation," read a statement by the office of Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani after the meeting on Jan. 10. The Kurds underwent a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s between various groups, especially Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), leading to the deaths of thousands.

Although Kurds have managed to spare their region from the bulk of the turmoil that engulfed Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, elections now threaten to bring a new round of instability as incumbent parties appear reluctant to relinquish power to newcomers like Gorran.

Gorran, a broad coalition of people with diverse political backgrounds, managed to surprise many in Kurdistan and abroad when it defeated a joint ticket of the PUK and KDP in Sulaimaniya Province during the Kurdish parliamentary elections last July.

Sulaimaniya is the largest and most populous of the three provinces that make up the autonomous Kurdistan region. For decades, it has been the power base of Talabani's PUK. Its longstanding rival and current ally, KDP, dominates the other two and is less threatened by Gorran.

Now, as Iraq's parliamentary elections approach, Gorran is determined to repeat that victory, while the PUK is anxious not to sustain another loss. A poor performance by the PUK would not only seriously diminish the ambitions of Talabani to regain Iraq's presidency, but could also push an ailing PUK to the margins of Kurdish politics.

Popular resentment over the KDP-PUK's joint administration of the Kurdish region over the past 18 years provided the fertile ground for Gorran's emergence. Gorran, which now has 25 seats in the 111-member Kurdish parliament, has promised to bring more accountability to the Kurdish government and fight endemic corruption and political nepotism in the region.

So far, in spite of irregularities and countless complaints, with the assistance and intervention of the U.S. and the U.N., Iraqis have been able to hold elections whose results have been largely accepted by the majority of Iraqi groups.

Often, during these periods of tension, the U.S. has acted as the deal-broker and has kept the wheels of the political process rolling. The question, as Hiltermann of the ICG says, is whether in the long term Iraqis will be able to organize fair elections once the U.S. troops are out.


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