Commentary

Iraqis Vote in Provincial Elections

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Iraqis across the country voted in provincial elections over the weekend, the first of their kind since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011. The elections are seen as a test for Iraq’s major political factions ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. While reactions to the voting process have generally been positive, most of them expressed concern about the continuing threat of violence. In the northern part of Iraq, meanwhile, the two main Kurdish political factions are at odds over the question of the presidency of the highly autonomous Kurdish region.

Al Jazeera, the main Arab news agency, reported that things did not go perfectly: “Four people were injured on Saturday after bombs and mortar rounds hit a voting station in Latifiya, south of Baghdad. More explosions struck at least four other towns without any injuries or casualties reported, police officers told the Reuters news agency....Iraqi forces were responsible for security on polling day. It was the first time they had been in charge without support from U.S. or other international forces during elections since Saddam was toppled.”

Meanwhile, focusing on less violent hiccups, the Iraqi news website Aswat Al-Iraq highlights: “Reports published by NGO Shams organization said that a ‘grave mistake occurred in the voting paper in Karbala province that might repeat the elections’....Anbar and Ninewa elections were postponed for security reasons, while Kirkuk elections were postponed for legal and procedural differences. As for the Kurdish region, the elections in Arbil, Sulaimaniya and Duhuk, shall be conducted separately. This is the first election after U.S. withdrawal, amid political crisis among the political blocs that lasted for 16 months.”

The somber mood of the country was highlighted by Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Al-Hashemi, who, citing recent polling figures, lamented the fact that “Ten years on from the occupation, the Iraqi people are still divided and preoccupied with searching for a way out of their national disaster....A public opinion poll conducted in 2004 showed that 55% of the Iraqis anticipated that they would enjoy better conditions in the future. However, in 2013, nearly 56% of respondents said they expected their conditions to deteriorate in the future, adding that the situation was better under the former regime. This poll also revealed that 89% of Iraqis believe that government institutions are corrupt, while 60% did not describe their country as democratic. In addition to this, 86% of those asked acknowledged that the Iraqi people are divided. The poll also demonstrated that 75% of Iraqis identify themselves along ideological lines, compared to just 25% in 2004.”

Reminders of the lack of security and continuing violence were everywhere in Iraq during the voting process ,leading the Khaleej Times to remark on what its staff characterized as an election taking place amid “confusion and crisis”: “Apart from low turnout, the elections seem to be an exercise undertaken in political exigency, rather than one to usher in popular representation. That is so because sectarian and linguistic identities are too strong to be ignored, and Iraqis have not really come out of that kaleidoscopic prism. The country and its vote bank are clearly split in three constituencies of Shia, Sunni and Kurds that also come to represent the prevailing status quo....Notwithstanding the successes that the new dispensation had achieved in the last couple of years — in terms of nation-building and fighting terror, it has not yet been able to beat parochial tendencies.”

The Peninsula editorial also drew attention to the ongoing sectarianism which, according to the editorial “has been the bane of the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Voters in general didn’t exude much enthusiasm. According to officials, the voter participation was just fifty percent of the registered voters, which is an extremely low number, and speaks of a lack of confidence and pessimism about the current state of affairs in the country....irrespective of the election outcome, Maliki must rise above sectarian divisions and project himself as a leader who represents all Iraqis. It’s a tough task in the polarized and chaotic political atmosphere in the country, but it’s a task he alone can perform. The alternative will be a plunge into anarchy for a country which has already suffered enough.”

In the north of the country, the Kurds are struggling with a different kind of challenge. The main topic of debate there is whether the current Kurdistan Region President, Massoud Barzani, will run for a third term, despite a law prohibiting him from doing so.  In an interview with the Kurdish daily Rudaw, a member of Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) argues that given the difficult times ahead, the Kurds need Barzani’s steady hand: “[H]e has not said he will run for the post, but we believe it necessary for him to run again. That is because the sensitive situation in Kurdistan, Iraq — and the Middle East in general — requires him to be in the presidency. His talents, experience and ample information on the Kurdish issues and Kurdish rights, his understanding of Iraqi problems and constitutional issues, make him a necessary figure for the post....There are many examples where the people of a country have needed their leader to run for a third time, and the leader has agreed. Then, they have found a way to make it happen.”

The Kurdish opposition has rejected any possibilities of extending Barzani’s rule by another term, announcing over the weekend that very soon “it will nominate a personality to the Presidency post of the region, pointing that it will determine the personality. Mohammed Tawfeeq told Aswat al-Iraq that the determination of the personality will be determined after discussions with opposition political blocs, in reference to the Islamic Federation and the Islamic Group…. The Kurdish authorities decided that 21 September next will be the date for coming parliamentary elections and presidency.”

Finally, Iraqi identity politics have made their way to the stage of Arab Idol, where, according to an Al Arabiya news report, one of the judges took exception to a Kurdish contestant’s identification as coming from Kurdistan rather than Iraq: “For the first time in the pan-Arab talent show, Barwas Hussein, from Iraq’s semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan sung in Kurdish. The on-screen title showed Hussein’s country of origin as ‘Kurdistan Iraq,’ while another two Iraqi participants had their country title as ‘Iraq.’...The Kurdish contestant smiled at the judge, and mouthed the words ‘Kurdistan Iraq,’ appearing to imply she preferred this country title instead of the judge’s preference. The other three judges, who hailed from Egypt and Lebanon, kept quiet.”


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