Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes

Wednesday 28 January 2009, by International Crisis Group

Baghdad/Brussels, 27 January 2009: Elections on Saturday have a potential to make still fragile Iraq more stable by reversing severe imbalances in provincial governance created four years ago, which generated deep grievances and widespread violence.

Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes,* the latest International Crisis Group report, examines how these elections could refresh local governance, test the strength of various parties and serve as a bellwether for nationwide political trends ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. On 31 January, Iraqis will vote in fourteen of eighteen governorates to elect new councils.

Participation by parties that boycotted the 2005 elections is expected to reduce the dominance of governing parties whose rule has been marred by mismanagement and corruption. Even if they have taken a hit in public perceptions, however, they remain strong and well-funded, able to mobilise voters around religious symbols and use their institutional power to direct them to candidates of their choice.

“Ruling parties enjoy built-in advantages that will make it hard to translate severe popular disappointment into clear repudiation at the polls”, says Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group’s Middle East Deputy Program Director. “They will make use of their superior access to wealth and patronage to influence the vote. Fraud is feared in the absence of international observers. And the opposition is hopelessly divided”.

The result of the 2005 electoral boycott was imbalanced provincial bodies often unreflective of popular needs, as well as an accumulation of local grievances. The councils’ failure to deliver basic services has made voters disenchanted with both the religious parties and the clerics that sponsored them.

This explains the rise of a new generation of politicians untainted by corruption, more technocratic in background, less religious in outlook and more nationalist in ideology. They will come to the job with less baggage and better credentials than the current leadership and might be both better equipped and more willing to make the compromises needed to put Iraq on a more stable footing.

“Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all-out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Despite likely shortcomings, they may begin to redress some of the most severe problems associated with the 2005 vote, assuring fairer representation of all segments of the population”.

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