Connect to share and comment

Discord as elections loom in Iraq

Analysis: The country struggles to decide just how democratic it really wants to be.

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.