Sunday, February 01, 2009

Provincial elections in Iraq

During much of 2006-2007, the Arab part of Iraq seemed to be caught up in a self-reinforcing dynamic of escalating inter-sectarian civil war, and many people concluded--with some plausibility--that the country was going irretrievably over the edge. It didn't (due in no small part, skeptics should finally admit, to the so-called "surge").

One sign is the steady and dramatic reduction in political violence, US military casualties, and Iraqi civilian casualties since mid-2007. Another sign the fact that elections for provincial governments were just held successfully and with minimal violence (in Iraqi terms) all across the country.
Iraqis voted over the weekend for local representatives in an almost violence-free election aimed at creating provincial councils that more closely represent Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and tribal balance. (IHT)

As ballots were being counted yesterday, defence officials released figures showing that the number of deaths across Iraq had dropped to their lowest since the 2003 invasion, with 191 Iraqis killed during January, 140 of them civilians. he figure was less than half that of the previous month's tally of 316 deaths, which was also a record low. (Guardian)
The results and long-term implications of these elections will take a while to become clear. Meanwhile, some early reports are below.

--Jeff Weintraub

International Herald Tribune
Iraqi election is mostly peaceful and orderly

Iraqis voted over the weekend for local representatives in an almost violence-free election aimed at creating provincial councils that more closely represent Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and tribal balance.

By nightfall on Saturday, there were no confirmed deaths, and children played soccer on closed-off streets in a generally joyous atmosphere.

Security was extraordinary. Driving was banned in most of the country to prevent suicide bombers from attacking any of the more than 6,000 polling places and security checkpoints, often spaced just meters apart.

The tight security, coupled with confusion over where voters should cast their ballots, appeared to have reduced turnout in many districts across the country. Senior members of several political parties were complaining publicly even before the polls closed.

Nationwide, turnout varied: Some provinces hovered around 60 percent, with Basra, a Shiite-dominated region in the south, still lower at about 50 percent. Others, including the northern province of Nineveh, which is strained by political tensions and violence between Arabs and Kurds, had 75 percent participation, according to local election officials. [....]

Turnout was also high in Anbar Province, an overwhelmingly Sunni area where residents largely boycotted the 2005 national elections because of threats by insurgents and opposition to the U.S.-led invasion. Sunnis' participation in this election is considered critical to restoring balance to regional politics and perhaps undercutting a reason for violence.

"I just voted, and I'm very happy," Mukhalad Waleed, 35, said in the city of Ramadi, in Anbar. "We could not do the same thing the last time because of the insurgency." [....]

Results are not expected for several days, with politicians anxiously waiting to find out how councils will change and whether widespread dissatisfaction voiced against religion-affiliated political parties will translate into fewer seats for them.

More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The seats are for provincial councils that control municipal budgets and have the power to hire and fire people, giving successful candidates a great deal of power and influence in a nation with high unemployment. There was no voting in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, or in the divided city of Kirkuk. [....]

The vote, in addition to deciding how local governments are run, is also seen as an important indicator for national elections expected to be within a year and decide the shape of the central government. [....]
Christian Science Monitor
Iraqi vote expected to bolster Maliki

Election day was largely free of violence as millions of Iraqis voted in provincial polls that appear to have bolstered Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power in the south and weakened the Kurds' dominance in the north.

In parts of Iraq the mood was festive and hopeful. In Baghdad, children played soccer in streets free of cars as driving was mostly banned. Families wore their best clothes to walk to polls. Elsewhere, voting seemed oddly routine. The first postinvasion nationwide vote in 2005 – marred by fighting, threats, and boycotts – was considered by many as a democratic test run; Saturday's vote is seen as the real thing. [....]

Official results are expected midweek. But early returns indicated that Shiite candidates affiliated with Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party did well in the south, while in the north, Sunni Arab voters, many participating for the first time, were believed to have voted in significant numbers for al-Hadba candidates, a new party that has pledged to challenge Kurdish expansion.

With the Sunni Arab boycott of elections in 2005, Kurds in the last provincial government held 31 of 41 seats in Nineveh Province, which contains Iraq's third-largest city, Mosul.

The expected popularity of the Dawa Party is seen as a boost for Maliki ahead of a national election set for the end of this year. The disputed Kirkuk region and the three semiautonomous Kurdish provinces were excluded from the provincial elections.

Five political candidates were assassinated in the run-up to the elections. But on voting day, there was so little violence that the vehicle ban, which outside the major cities seemed widely ignored, was lifted to allow more voters to get to the polls. In one of the only incidents of violence, US soldiers shot two off-duty Iraqi policemen in a firefight near Mosul.

To keep the election safe, Iraq sealed its borders, shut down its airports, and deployed every available soldier and policeman around polling stations in the 14 of 18 provinces that voted Saturday.

In Baghdad, as they did elsewhere in Iraq, voters proudly displayed purple ink-stained index fingers – proof that they had cast their ballots.

Many say they have high expectations for Iraq's newly elected politicians.

"I have a college degree, but there are no job opportunities because the security situation was out of control. This election will offer me different opportunities," says Uday Samir, who set aside his language degree in Turkish to be part of a poorly paid neighborhood watch group in the Athamiya neighborhood of Baghdad.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, voters seemed to be turning to candidates who are focused on the economy as much as religion.

The run-down schools across the country that served as most of the more than 6,000 polling sites provided evidence of why six years into the war, Iraqis are demanding governments who can deliver services. [....]

The election was observed by hundreds of foreign monitors. Stefan de Mistura, the UN special envoy here, says that while there were minor problems, voting across the country generally proceeded smoothly and effectively.

"This is a good day for Iraq's democracy," he says.

The effects are still to be determined, but many Iraqis who did vote Saturday agreed. "It's like a flower," said school principal Adris Murad Ali, holding up his purple ink-stained finger.
Guardian (UK)
Boost for Maliki as party appears to sweep election

Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, long seen as too weak to lead Iraq out of the ruins of war, appeared last night to have emerged with an impressively strong victory in landmark weekend elections in which his candidates reportedly swept the nine Shia provinces.

Final results are not expected for at least two weeks. But Maliki's rivals in the Shia heartland of Karbala and Basra were last night suggesting that candidates under the banner of the prime minister's Dawa party had won up to 50% of the vote in their areas. [....]

As ballots were being counted yesterday, defence officials released figures showing that the number of deaths across Iraq had dropped to their lowest since the 2003 invasion, with 191 Iraqis killed during January, 140 of them civilians. he figure was less than half that of the previous month's tally of 316 deaths, which was also a record low.

Maliki had campaigned on the benefits of increased security and quelling sectarianism and had pledged much needed services to the disaffected provinces.

A total of 14 of the 18 Iraqi provinces took part in the poll. Nine of them are Shia-dominated areas. The prime minister's candidates are also reported to have performed strongly in the Shia suburbs of Baghdad, particularly Sadr City, which remains a stronghold of the Mahdi army militia group.

Less than 12 months ago, Maliki deployed Iraqi troops, with British and US support, against Mahdi army strongholds in Sadr City and Basra amid widespread Shia anger. However, violence fell away markedly across the country after the operation.
Associated Press
[JW: The analysis in this AP article is uneven, and some points strike me as questionable, but the following seems on-target:]

[....] A year ago, al-Maliki looked to be sinking. Shiite militiamen ruled cities such as Basra and parts of Baghdad and rockets were pouring into the protected Green Zone, which includes the U.S. Embassy and Iraq's parliament.

Al-Maliki — with apparent little advance coordination with the U.S. military [JW: but with crucial assistance from the US military once the fighting started] — struck back. An offensive broke the militia control in Basra and elsewhere in the south. His reputation turned around.

And many voters appeared happy to reward his political backers in the elections for seats on provincial councils, which carry significant clout with authority over local business contracts, jobs and local security forces.

"Al-Maliki ended the militiamen's reign of terror," said Faisal Hamadi, 58, after voting in Basra. "For this he deserves our vote." [....]
And for those distrustful of any potentially good news from Iraq, here is a more glass-half-empty perspective from Reuters:

Turnout in Iraq's polls to elect councils governing 14 out of 18 provinces was lower than many had hoped due to voter registration problems and tight security.

The elections took place on Saturday without the major bloodshed that has plagued Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. [....]

Officials said on Sunday 7.5 million or 51 percent of the more than 14 million registered voters had braved car bans, body searches, barbed wire barricades and checkpoints to take part.

That was lower than the 60 percent or more that many political leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, had spoken of during the campaign. Participation in Iraq's last vote, a parliamentary election in 2005, was 76 percent. [....]

The turnout levels may be respectable for a provincial poll in a country only just beginning to adopt competitive democracy and where scepticism about politicians runs high, analysts say.

"The lower turnout I think would reflect cynicism but also world-weariness with the vote. You had that huge tidal wave of expectation in 2005 ... and that crashed up against the reality of a fairly incompetent ruling elite," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London.