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Iraqi Provincial Elections Shed New Light on Country’s Political Progress

February 2, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq went relatively smoothly with more than 7 million Iraqis -- roughly half of all voters -- participating. Analysts examine what the poll says about Iraq's political system and its readiness to govern when U.S. troops depart.
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MARGARET WARNER: Saturday’s provincial elections in Iraq went off with barely a hitch, as more than 7 million Iraqis, roughly half of all voters, turned out.

NABILA AL-YASS (through translator): Thanks be to God, the elections were successful. They have passed peacefully.

MARGARET WARNER: Fourteen thousand candidates campaigned for 440 seats on the provincial councils, similar to U.S. state legislatures. The campaign saw candidates going door to door, plastering posters up around neighborhoods, even creating Facebook pages on the Internet.

Most of Iraq’s political parties were on the ballot. Even Sunni parties and voters who boycotted national elections in 2005 took part this time. There was one exception: no voting in the three Kurdish provinces in the north or the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk.

Election day in the other 14 provinces was largely peaceful. There was extraordinary security, much of it carried out by Iraqi forces. Driving was banned in most areas to prevent suicide attacks. There were some complaints of people being turned away from polling stations.

WISSAM AL-BAYATI, Iraqi lawmaker (through translator): The democratic process conducted on Saturday was incomplete. The displaced people didn’t cast their votes because they didn’t find their names in the voters’ record.

MARGARET WARNER: But international observers said the elections seemed free and fair.

STAFFAN DE MISTURA, United Nations envoy to Iraq: What I’ve seen has been a good organization, a good attendance, and a good system of implementing all the items and the rules of an election.

MARGARET WARNER: Votes are still being tallied, but early returns suggested strong support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, among others. Final results are expected in the coming days.

In an NBC interview aired this morning, President Obama said the election showed Iraq was increasingly able to manage on its own.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that we have a sense, now that Iraq just had a very significant election with no significant violence there, that we are in a position to start putting more responsibility on the Iraqis. And that’s good news for not only the troops in the field, but their families who are carrying an enormous burden.

MARGARET WARNER: But in Washington today came a reminder that all is not progress in Iraq. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction said a great deal of the $51 billion rebuilding program there had been wasted due to mismanagement and corruption.

Iraq's future

Zalmay Khalilzad
Former U.S. Ambassador to United Nations
The fact that the Iraqis took responsibility largely for security and they did a good job is all very encouraging, although the level of participation was not as high as one would have liked, 51 percent.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do this weekend's elections say about Iraq's future as a self-governing, independent country? For that, we turn to Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the last two years of the Bush administration.

And Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, he was an adviser to the Obama campaign on Iraq issues and is co-author of "The Prosperity Agenda: What the World Wants from America and What We Need in Return."

And welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Mr. Ambassador, beginning with you, what does this election say about how Iraq is progressing as a functioning, stable democracy?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: Well, thank you, Margaret. First, I want to correct one thing in what you reported, which is that the Sunni Arabs did participate in the 2005 national election. They boycotted or did not participate adequately in the provincial elections in 2005.

And with regard to the question that you asked, this is an important milestone for Iraq, the fact that it happened. A lot of power is delegated in the Iraqi constitution to the provincial level. And now all provinces of Iraq will be governed in the Arab area by people elected locally, and that's important. And the fact that it happened peacefully is important.

And, also, it is an indication of where Iraq is and where Iraq is heading in terms of political trends. And the fact that the Iraqis took responsibility largely for security and they did a good job is all very encouraging, although the level of participation was not as high as one would have liked, 51 percent. And in some areas, it was below that.

But, all in all, I think this was a positive development.

Reaction to final results

Brian Katulis
Center for American Progress
I think there was a lot of premature "mission accomplished" after the series of elections in 2005. And what is key now is this post-election process of the vote tabulation, but then, importantly, how are the different factions going to share power?

MARGARET WARNER: Brian Katulis, do you agree, all in all positive on this path to becoming a self-governing, democratic government?

BRIAN KATULIS, Center for American Progress: Well, so far, so good, but I should highlight that this is the first test in a series of tests about this new phase in Iraq's history. And it's still too early to tell whether this test has succeeded because the votes aren't even tabulated. We don't have final results.

And I think the key here, as we saw in the 2005 elections, was how gracious are the winners in victory? And then how do the losers actually take their defeat?

We already see some worrisome signs that perhaps, in some parts of the country, those who may not have fared so well in the polls -- and, again, we don't have the final results -- but we had a quote from a Sunni tribal leader whom the U.S. military had supported who said that there will be another Darfur if the Iraqi Islamic Party does very well.

So it's key. You know, I think there was a lot of premature "mission accomplished" after the series of elections in 2005. And what is key now is this post-election process of the vote tabulation, but then, importantly, how are the different factions going to share power? Will they do this? And I think there are so many questions ahead that remain to be answered.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, what do you say to that point? And what did the election tell us or the way the campaign was run about how sectarian still the divisions are and whether the parties do accept that the way you settle them, mediate them, is through an election that everyone accepts the results of?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, first, I think, as was just stated, we don't know the final results, but the indications are that the prime minister's party, among the Shia parties, did well, and that the secular parties have done relatively well, and the Arab nationalist groups have done also relatively well, and the tribal forces in the Sunni areas, vis-a-vis the Islamic Party, have done relatively well.

Now, the key question is how the Iraqis will react to that. I think that's a good point. Will those who have done badly accept the results? Or will they now try to, in preparations for the national elections, see that the prime minister is replaced before the national elections, since, being an incumbent prime minister, a prime minister who did well in terms of bringing security and was rewarded positively, that there will be an attempt, perhaps, to replace him before national elections?

I think that Iraq has taken a positive step, but there are issues that are still unresolved. But certainly the complexity now is that sectarian parties, although important, are less important than they were before, but that the nationalists, secular parties have also emerged as important. And that will have its own implications for the future of Iraq.

Powers of provincial councils

Brian Katulis
Center for American Progress
There were signs that these millions of individuals did not participate at the rates as other Iraqis have. That's a major political challenge, in addition to a humanitarian challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think the implications of that are?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, I think there's a whole host of questions beyond how the winners and the losers react to the results. There's a question of, how much power do these provincial governments actually have?

There was a provincial powers law that was passed last year, but there were a lot of holes in terms of, how will money be shared with the central government? And that's a key here. How much power will be shared from the central to these different provinces? So that's one question.

There are big challenges on the horizon, I think, with the Arab-Kurdish tensions that we've seen in places like Kirkuk. They obviously have deferred those elections for a period of time. But places like Mosul, once these elections are...

MARGARET WARNER: Where there was voting, but it's a mixed area.

BRIAN KATULIS: Exactly. And once these elections, results are actually released, I'd be careful to watch what happens in these key places.

And then there's another issue of millions of Iraqis who have been displaced, particularly in the 2005-2006 conflict, which some call the civil war. There were signs that these millions of individuals did not participate at the rates as other Iraqis have. That's a major political challenge, in addition to a humanitarian challenge.

Prospects for U.S. troop withdrawal

Zalmay Khalilzad
Former U.S. Ambassador to United Nations
It seems overall that Iraq is heading in the right directions with some questions and some fragility remaining.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you this. While this was going on in Iraq, of course, we have the new president and the Pentagon considering the feasibility of accelerating the rate of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. What does this weekend's election, just the fact that it took peacefully, albeit under heavy security, say to you about the feasibility of stepping that up?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, of course, this was positive largely, although important questions still remain. It's not clear to me whether this necessitates an accelerated or facilitates an accelerated withdrawal.

I don't know to what extent the current plans were contingent on a successful provincial election. Certainly, it could be looked at if a successful provincial election was an important indicator of whether you could accelerate withdrawal.

It seems overall that Iraq is heading in the right directions with some questions and some fragility remaining. Therefore, it's important to be prudent and not to take steps, such as perhaps accelerating, if that's not warranted by local circumstances, a withdrawal that could cause an unraveling of the situation. I think this is something maybe you want all to look at, but be very prudent given the uncertainty that still remains.

MARGARET WARNER: You agree? Is "prudence" the watchword here?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, I think President Obama has been clear that we're going to be as careful getting out of Iraq as reckless as we were getting in.

But there's one important point I think that needs to be made, and it is this major shift in Iraq policy in the last six months. Essentially what we've seen is a declaration of independence by the Iraqis by a broader-based group of Iraqi leaders. And this is an amazing shift that I think our media has not caught up on.

The Bush administration for four or five years opposed a timeline. Before it left office, it actually signed on to a very clear timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. This was at the demand of the Iraqis.

I think these results and the results of these elections, and plus the results of a referendum on this security status-of-forces agreement...

MARGARET WARNER: Which is coming up.

BRIAN KATULIS: ... coming up in the summer, I think the trajectory of this has been towards a withdrawal of U.S. forces, and for a whole host of other reasons. We may need to have more resources available in Afghanistan. And I think we're moving in that direction. And that shift, I think, is an important shift to emphasize.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Brian Katulis, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you both.

BRIAN KATULIS: Thank you.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you.