What a difference four years makes. The last time Iraqis went to the polls in 2005, Iraq was in the grip of a violent insurgency. Assassination, suicide bombings and IEDs were the order of the day. There were few campaign posters: most candidates were too terrified to show their faces. Sunni Iraqis boycotted the election; so did many Shiite urban slum dwellers. Al Qaeda was firmly entrenched in Anbar province and its tentacles were spreading. Critics of the 2003 American invasion warned that the war had already been lost, that mayhem would inevitably follow. The elections were widely seen as having helped Iraq slide into sectarian politics en route to a total civil war.
Four years later, the picture is hugely different. As Iraqis voted in record numbers on Saturday in fourteen of eighteen governorates to elect new provincial councils and set the stage for parliamentary elections later this year, much of Iraq is stable. Sunnis and Shiites alike are participating. More than 15 million of an estimated 17.2 million Iraqis eligible to vote signed up to cast ballots. Some 300 new parties have emerged, says the Council on Foreign Relations — democratic, liberal, nationalistic, and sectarian. The elections are being monitored not only by some 400 international observers, but by 300,000 Iraqis from various political parties.
“These polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point,” said the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that has often been critical of America’s occupation and Iraq’s rulers. These polls, the ICG added, reflect a “remarkable transition.” In just four years, Iraqi politics have evolved from non-stop violence and conflict to an essentially “democratic contest over positions and institutions, including at the local level.”
Yes, the elections are utter chaos. Some 14,428 candidates — a third of them women — are vying for 440 seats on the provincial councils that are supposed to oversee the delivery of real services to Iraqis, something that hasn’t happened to date.
The candidates have been campaigning door-to-door, making promises they are unlikely to keep, handing out election posters, hats, buttons, and even items that Iraqi law bans, such as cash, food, blankets, and washing machines. Charges of vote-buying abound. (As in Chicago-style politics perhaps?)
And yes, Iraq could still fall victim to the ethnic, religious, and ideological splits that led to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. But it is worth savoring this day after all the death and suffering on all sides, for these elections could represent more than what critics dismissed during the 2005 polls as a “purple-finger moment,” a reference to the ink-stained index fingers that Iraqi voters displayed to show that they had taken part in Iraq’s first free national election in decades. While violence has persisted — bombings, political intimidation, and the murder of least five candidates of different ethnicities and political persuasions in the run-up to Saturday’s voting — virtually all Iraq’s key political players participated directly or indirectly this time. Even Moktada al-Sadr, the son of the influential Shiite cleric who came to represent the face of opposition to America’s military presence in Iraq but who has not been seen in public in months, urged his estimated 20,000 followers to vote for ostensibly “independent” candidates on two lists that his faction had vetted and blessed.
Will the euphoria prevail after the election posters come down? Many of those who know the country well are skeptical, understandably. Kenneth M. Pollack, of the Brookings Institute, who wrote a book endorsing the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the notion of the U.S. invasion that George Bush launched in 2003, recently stressed that Iraq remained highly unstable. A lack of American focus, he warned, could enable “venal politicians” to distort the system and prompt Iraq to very quickly “go south.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he said, was increasingly centralizing power in his own hands; his motives were uncertain. A similar warning came from Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst and paradoxically, the author of the decidedly upbeat assessment that his group, the International Crisis Group, issued prior to the elections. Iraq, he warns, remains “fraught with crippling problems.” And it is unclear whether Iraq’s competing political factions will be able to create a “new national compact that ensures stability can withstand a U.S. exit.”
These caveats are well worth remembering as President Obama weighs how to withdraw American forces from Iraq “responsibly,” as he put it.
But for all the concern, the bottom line of Saturday’s national elections in Iraq is still cause for calm celebration: quarrels that were settled in Iraq only four years ago by mortars, bombs and guns are now being resolved at voting booths. The trend may not last, but it is something.