In a vastly changed political climate, Iraqis will go to the
polls Saturday for the first time since 2005 to vote on provincial
councils -- equivalent to state legislatures in the United States
-- in what is considered the next important test for the country's
With violence down across the country, there is less sectarian
strain on this poll than in Iraq's presidential and parliamentary
elections in 2005, observers say.
dominating reality of the 2005 elections was that they were not
seen by large factions of the electorate as a path to improvement,"
said Stephen Biddle, an Iraq expert at the Council on Foreign
Relations. "It was viewed as a life and death, existential
struggle. The Sunnis were frightened of Shiite autocracy and genocide
and the Shiites the reverse. And the Kurds were frightened of
everybody. In that setting everyone was using the elections strategically
in an increasingly dangerous environment."
According to Biddle, the trends are much improved in Iraq, and
the electorate's concerns are less sectarian and more about things
such as improving services and staunching corruption.
Iraqis say the sheer number of candidates already highlights
an achievement. Some 14,400 people are vying for 440 provincial
council slots. The vote will take place in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The exceptions are the Kurdish provinces in the North and the
heavily disputed mixed Kurdish-Arab province of Tameem, which
some feared would lead to violence if a vote went forward now.
A secular and nationalist movement
In the election, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
will be looking to build a stronger base for his Shiite Dawa party
ahead of national elections later in the year. Dawa is currently
a minor player in the governing coalition and Maliki was selected
as prime minister as a compromise by some of the more dominant
members of the coalition.
"Dawa may do better now because Maliki has become much more
popular," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International
Crisis Group. "Rather deftly, he has sort of pushed back
against several actors and thereby scored support among the enemies
of those actors. He's looking at this vote as a test for national
elections, to parlay his growing popularity into electoral support."
Maliki's message of "restoring the prestige and respect
of the state" resonates with many Iraqis. His supporters
say, in the past year, the Shiite leader has led the fight against
both Sunni and Shia forces trying to destabilize the country.
He went after Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but also elements of the Shiite
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia in its southern stronghold
and in Baghdad.
Critics, however, say Maliki has been becoming more authoritarian
by taking control of the armed forces as if it were his own personal
militia, accusing him of sacking political opponents, and creating
and financing tribal councils across the country that he controls
directly from his office.
"Some are attacking him, calling him a dictator," said
Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service
Committee. "He's insisting he wants the Iraqi army to operate
in the Kurdish areas, which is a red line for the Kurds. And,
he's against Shiite autonomy in the South," a position that
has put him at odds with his coalition partner, the Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq.
"The political map is shifting in Iraq," Jarrar added.
"And the prime minister's position has shifted with it."
The shift is toward a more secular and nationalist platform,
experts say. In 2005, with the country enmeshed in a bloody sectarian
war, Iraqi voters turned to parties that billed themselves as
defenders of religious and sectarian communities -- Sunnis, Shia
or Kurds. But in the past year, as violence has waned, Iraqis
have grown increasingly frustrated by the central government's
inability to improve services and tackle corruption.
"One thing I've been hearing, and it is across many different
Iraqi political groups, is there is increasing dissatisfaction
with the religious parties and the way they have run the show,"
said Edmund Ghareeb, a professor of Middle East studies at American
University. "Many people believe this was a mistake to try
to divide the government along sectarian lines. So this might
be a more representative vote."
Already, some prominent religious leaders in the country -- including
the most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani --
have refused to endorse specific candidates or parties.
That's bad news for groups like the Islamic Supreme Council of
Iraq, the most dominant Shiite party in the country, and the one
most backed by Iran, which is likely to lose control of at least
several provinces in the South, where it currently dominates the
The downturn in violence
The splintering in the Shia community may be a result
of the country's decrease in violence, experts say. As sectarian
fighting has lessened in the past year, the sense of unity among
the Shiites has weakened.
"It's much easier to unite the Shiites when there's the
threat of Sunni genocidal violence," said Biddle. "As
the Sunni threat recedes, that glue among the Shiite factions
gets weaker and weaker."
The vote also might highlight tensions in the Sunni community.
Most Sunnis boycotted the last election, but this time experts
say the Sunnis are expected to vote in much higher numbers. And
observers are waiting to see if the Awakening movement -- which
started in Anbar Province as a group of tribal leaders rejecting
al-Qaida's influence in their community -- will gain a stronger
footing in the country's politics.
Biddle said a victory for the Awakening movement would send a
strong signal to the parties in power in Baghdad. "Many people
in Iraq look at the Awakening Councils and say they are the only
people actually accomplishing anything," he said. "Neighborhoods
they control are peaceful and they get credit for that. One of
their central claims to fame is that unlike the government they
can deliver services and do things for their constituents. So
if they do well in the election, the upside is that other political
groups will view that as a model for electoral success in Iraq"
as opposed to a reliance on appealing to sectarian fears.
The concern, however, is that either by design or valid electoral
process, groups like the Awakening will once again be shut out
of power and view the election results as illegitimate. And if
the losers conclude that their political avenues have collapsed,
they might see violence as the only alternative.
"Elections are inherently disaggregating events," said
Feisal Istrabadi, a law professor at Indiana University and a
former deputy ambassador to the United Nations for Iraq. "You
want your candidate to win. I want mine to win. We've seen them
be polarizing events around the world, but in Iraq, where society
for the past four years has seen ethnic cleansing, sectarian death
squads, you can take that and multiply by 10 or 100. If the same
parties, which engineered their victories last time, manipulate
the results again this time, it's difficult to see how we get
out of this dangerous cycle. So these elections are extremely
The best case scenario is that the elections will be perceived
as relatively clean and they will reverse the "destabilizing
legacy of the January 2005 elections," said Hiltermann. "The
absence of certain parties and groups that boycotted the last
election led to highly imbalanced local councils in some governants.
Groups that didn't have real support wound up taking most of the
seats. We shouldn't overstate it -- the ruling parties aren't
going to be ousted from office, at best they will be reduced somewhat
in power -- but these elections promise to overturn that legacy
to some extent."
It may be some time before the final results are known, and the
outcome will set the stage for national elections expected by