Discord as elections loom in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq — As Iraqi parliamentarians struggled over the past week with exactly how democratic they really want to be, it was telling that the brightest spot of democracy and certainly the savviest public relations campaign was playing out across town in Sadr City.

Members of parliament for the past two weeks have been trying to pass an election law that would pave the way for national elections by the end of January, which are wanted by the voters and required by the Constitution. A vote Thursday became bogged down in a dispute over how voting would take place in Kirkuk, the city disputed by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and every other group that wants to lay claim to its oil and historic homelands. It stalled again on Monday.

The delay has so alarmed both the U.S. and the U.N. that they’ve both issued statements urging parliament to get its act together and pass the law. The U.S. has been so fixated on the January elections that worry over the timing and type of elections has eclipsed the almost unspoken fear lurking in the background that elections done badly could be even more destabilizing than no vote at all.

In the midst of the parliamentary disarray, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr last week were happy to step into the breach as a beacon of sorts of the kind of democracy that they gleefully pointed out they were upholding.

While parliament struggled with the concept of an electoral system where voters know who the candidates are, tens of thousands of people in Sadr City crowded into polling stations for Baghdad’s first ever primary, deciding who should run in the national elections.

Apart from being over 35 and holding a college degree, the only other requirement for candidates was that they had never worked with the Americans.

Groups of young men, who said they were there because Sadr had ordered them to vote, cast their ballots and then dipped their index fingers in purple ink before raising them aloft in what has become the equivalent in Iraq of raising a middle finger to the rest of the region.

As much as Iraq has gotten beyond the sectarian violence in which the country almost tore itself apart two years ago, Sunni and Shiite politics still matter very much here. The Kurds, pivotal now to almost every major development in national politics, remain almost a side issue in that orbit in which Sunnis and Shiites still grapple with what kind of country they have now.

“Not a single one of them has ever said he was sorry for the things they did,” said an advisor to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, talking about the former Baathist officials that put their stamp on this country for so long.

It is, as officials point out, a very young democracy — perhaps reason enough for being badly behaved.

The core decision by members of parliament is over whether to reform the election law used in 2005 in a much more violent Iraq when voters were told only the parties and not the candidates. An ‘open list’ would allow voters to choose specific candidates but runs the risk of voting out of office members of parliament considered inefficient or corrupt.

“All of them want a closed list but no one is willing to say it publicly,” said a senior Iraqi official.

Adding moral sway to the argument for an open list was a call by the revered Shiite cleric the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that voters know what candidates they are choosing. A closed list would likely result in a substantial Shiite boycott of the poll, following provincial elections this January in which only a little over half of voters turned out in major cities.

U.S. and Iraqi officials believe this election is crucial to forming a more representative government that would provide the kind of stability that will, among other things, let U.S. forces leave a country that isn’t falling apart.

There are a lot of reasons why this election needs to work. Sunni Iraqis boycotted the 2005 elections and remain significantly underrepresented in politics. Turning former Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups into political players has been one of the cornerstones of reconciliation here.

One of the only things that is clear is that with so many political alliances at play, the coalitions that will determine how power is shared likely won’t take shape until after the elections.

Maliki has broken with his traditional Shiite partners who helped bring him to power, declining to join them in a new coalition that did not guarantee him the leadership. Sunnis whom the U.S. has encouraged to band together to increase their political chances still remain apart. And the Kurds, for now, are hedging them bets.

Senior U.S. officials believe that it could take five to six months after the January elections until coalitions are decided and a government is seated. In between is the dangerous part.

With a U.S. military now subordinate to a sovereign government and with still fragile security, a government in transition could well be a problematic partner.