When the first free elections took hold in Iraq under the auspices of the U.S., it was certainly a milestone in the history of Iraq. Washington, hands deep in the Iraqi political and security picture at the time, accepted that the transitional road to democracy and national reconciliation was going to be rocky and protracted but hoped that with time Iraq would see much light under the tunnel.
In 2014 as Iraqis prepare for their third national elections on 30th April 2014, close to 11 years since the ouster of Saddam, Iraqi stability, security and national reconciliation remains dormant at best but certainly not a far cry from 2006.
Iraq is currently locked in the worst sectarian violence since the height of its crippling civil war. There were over 9000 deaths in 2013 and already 2000 this year. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has used an iron fist to quell a new Sunni insurgency, clearly reinvigorated by the Syrian conflict next door that has seen Sunni militants roam in large parts of the Anbar province and occupy the flashpoint town of Fallujah, on the doorstep of Baghdad.
Maliki’s response to mass Sunni protests at the political marginalisation by the Shiite led government drove a wider wedge in the sectarian divide but more importantly alienated moderate Sunni factions. It must not be forgotten, it was the Sunni Sahwa or Awakening Councils that ultimately drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni heartlands at the height of the sectarian insurgency in 2007-2008, not direct American fire-power.
Maliki has even reverted to Tehran to purchase weapons, at the dismay of Washington, which threatens to extend the regional Sunni-Shiite battle clearly on display in Syria.
If the historic Sunni headache was not bad enough, Maliki has hardly created many friends in Kurdistan. Discontent between Kurds and Baghdad is not new especially over oil exports, national budget and disputed territories, but on the eve of the elections and with Maliki effectively putting Kurdistan under an economic siege by withholding national budget payments and refusing to compromise on Kurdish oil exports via Turkey, this is already making a future national unity government an arduous if not impossible task.
If this wasn’t proving a difficult enough backdrop, the entire members of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) presented their resignation last week. If accepted by the government, it all but ends any chance of holding elections on schedule even as most parties insist on it been held on time.
Some Sunni groups have illustrated the IHEC position and the poor security condition in Sunni-dominated areas as reasons why polls should be delayed. If Sunnis are not adequately represented at the polls as in 2006 when they largely boycotted the vote, it will strike a blow to the credibility of any government before it has even started.
Ultimately, the IHEC will not be allowed to stand-down but such a move by the commission owing to their great frustration over political interference sums up the negative mood surrounding these elections.
The UN supported the IHEC and praised them for been technically well prepared and for their integrity. This sentiment was echoed by the US government.
The IHEC complained that it was caught in the middle of conflicting rulings between the legislative and judicial authorities particularly around the validity of certain candidates from the election. A vague provision in Iraq’s electoral law that requires Iraqi candidates to be of “good reputation” has been manipulated and interpreted to suit political agendas. Critics of Maliki have waged that this provision has been abused to bolster Maliki’s quest for a third term in office.
At a local level in the Kirkuk province there was a similar divide over holding of elections in the province. Arabs have sought to delay elections with Kurds and most Turkmen groups insistent that it must be held on time.
Iraqis broke a world record to form a government after elections in 2010. Even then many of the agreements that underpinned the eventual breakthrough have not been implemented. Forming a government in 2014 will be even more difficult.
Either way, if the declining Iraqi political, economic and security spiral continues into the next government with Kurdistan and Baghdad failing to bridge the growing divide and Sunni-Shiite polarisation deepening, there may not be another election come 2018.