Bravo Iraqi elections, but now comes the hard part

Provincial elections are a sign of revival, but Iraq is not fixed yet. By Joost Hiltermann High expectations are resting on Iraq’s provincial elections this Saturday. Iraq has been such a mess and the return to near-normalcy such a welcome event, that it is easy to endow the upcoming vote with an unreasonable significance. Yes, ...

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An Iraqi police woman casts her vote in the provincial elections in the Shiite Muslim city of Karbala120 kms south of the capital Baghdad on January 28 2009. About 614,000 Iraqi police, soldiers, prisoners and hospital patients will vote in the first stage of the country's provincial election, the nation's first ballot since 2005. Iraq's provincial councils are responsible for nominating governors who lead the administration, finance and reconstruction projects in their areas, while the security forces remain under Baghdad's control. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED SAWAF (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images)

Provincial elections are a sign of revival, but Iraq is not fixed yet.

By Joost Hiltermann

Provincial elections are a sign of revival, but Iraq is not fixed yet.

By Joost Hiltermann

High expectations are resting on Iraq’s provincial elections this Saturday. Iraq has been such a mess and the return to near-normalcy such a welcome event, that it is easy to endow the upcoming vote with an unreasonable significance. Yes, the elections are evidence that things are on the mend. But we should temper our expectations — about the vote’s outcome and what it means for Iraq now and when the U.S. pulls out. Even with a successful election, the country will remain fraught with crippling problems.

Saturday’s elections are a mere hop in a nation-building journey that had barely left the gate when perilous missteps in 2005 (an electoral boycott and a constitution-drafting process gone awry) almost derailed it. The elections — set to fill posts at the provincial level — will form elected local governments in a country that has yet to wean itself of the habits of a top-heavy centralized state. As the past six years have shown, the capacity for local leadership remains severely deficient. Training local administrators in preparing their own budgets, for example, has proven a formidable challenge. That’s only the beginning.

Logistics aside, a series of factors has spawned a certain cynicism about what local governments will and can do effectively. Lawlessness, corruption, isolation from Baghdad, inexperience, and confusion about overlapping authorities has disillusioned the newly voting public. When you ask Iraqis what the local councils have done for them, the stock answer is: Nothing. An independent politician in Diwaniya explained, “Despite violence, terrorism, explosions and threats, people voted [in 2005]. But what did they gain? They gained the reality that doors were shut in their faces.”

This perception will likely affect voting behavior. Low turnout may favor the same parties that brought us poor governance in the first place. Even if a fresh crop of local politicians succeeds in taking council seats, they will find it difficult to excel, given the bureaucratic legacy of decades of centralized control. Over the next four years, voter apathy may increase.

So what can the Iraqi elections achieve? Hopefully, they will reverse the destabilizing repercussions of the January 2005 polls, when the absence of key constituencies led to highly imbalanced councils, and the preponderance of religiously-guided, exile-bred parties produced poor administration and pervasive corruption.

Likewise, the elections will be a good test-run for a parliamentary vote later this year. They are a potential bellwether for nationwide political trends including the role of religion, the endurance of ethnic and sectarian identities, and the deepening conflict over decentralization.

These and other elections will set the stage for Iraq’s biggest upcoming challenge: creating a new national compact that ensures stability can withstand a U.S. exit. The country’s major political actors will need to decide how to settle conflicts over power (how to divide it), territory (how to allocate disputed areas) and resources (how to manage and share them). Such an agreement is a prerequisite for rebuilding the army and other security forces. For now, whatever their capability, Iraq’s security forces risk splitting along factional lines once U.S. forces withdraw.

At this point, elections are icing on the cake. The voting will indeed be a sign of revival. We should see it as an indicator of things to come. But we should not interpret it as conclusive evidence that Iraq has been fixed. There, elections are just the beginning.

Joost Hiltermann is Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, authoring the recent report, Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes.

MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images

Joost Hiltermann is program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

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