Iraqi Elections: A Global Concern
The Iraqi Parliamentary elections on March 7th were a long-awaited demonstration of the state of democracy in the war-ravaged country. Iraq has long suffered from years of bloody fighting from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship through to the American occupation. The run-up to the elections was long and fraught with difficulties, but the turnout was impressive with approximately 60 percent of the population participating despite threats and bombings due to sectarian violence. This was the second parliamentary election since the 2003 American-led invasion.
The election is viewed by many in the international community as the first step towards peace and stability. Marina Ottaway, a scholar from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has explained that the elections are the first step on the road towards a mature democracy. According to Ottaway, they are the “beginning of a new realignment of political forces” and a potential gauge of the current state of Iraqi affairs.
The global community, including the U.S., the EU, and Middle Eastern neighbors, is deeply interested in the outcome of the election. This concern is focused on the election’s impact on regional dynamics and the future direction of Iraq after a long history of ethnic and religious fractionalization. Iraqi’s international counterparts are interested in guaranteeing a trade relationship, ensuring better security, limiting the influx of refugees, and providing greater stability for Iraq and the larger region. The United States, in particular, sees this election as a potential mark of victory after its long and unpopular involvement in stabilizing Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era.
Iraqi Democracy in Action
Iraqi voter turnout was very impressive, reaching a level higher than that of the United States during the 2008 Presidential election. It was a tight race between the current Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and a former interim leader Ayad Allawi. At the outset, neither competitor appeared to secure a majority in the new 325-member Parliament.
Therefore, as it stands, both men must secure a winning coalition and gather enough votes to guarantee their position as the next Prime Minister for a four-year term. International election observers have noted that despite a widespread appeal to nationalism and sense of an overriding Iraqi identity, most citizens still voted along sectarian lines.
Iraq’s sectarian and religious divisions have made national cohesion a difficult task. The following chart from the BBC illustrates this division and the complexity of Iraq’s population composition.
The official results of the elections have not yet been released as there have been calls of fraud and corruption. Even high-level officials have requested a recount of the votes. Calls for a recount have generally been rejected by Iraq’s election commission, however, and deemed both impossible and unnecessary. There are over 50,000 polling stations that would have to be revisited in order to do so.
Additionally, there is a fear that this uncertainty may spill over into street violence and protests reminiscent of the June 2009 Iranian elections. Violence has been an unfortunate component of the elections thus far. Violence before the elections resulted in the death of 38 people during attacks in Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah, Baquba, and surrounding areas. Nonetheless, this violence did not seem to genuinely derail voter turnout. The general consensus has been very positive in terms of the numbers despite the outcry from some over fraud.
A breakdown of the important facts of the Iraqi general election is as follows:
• Voting to elect the 325-member Parliament
• 19 million eligible voters out of 28 million population
• Approximately 6,200 candidates from 86 competing factions
• 200,000 security personnel on duty in Baghdad alone
• Key issues: security, services, and disqualification of alleged Baathists (party of former dictator Saddam Hussein)
• Previous votes: January 2005 (transitional national assembly); October 2005 (constitution); December 2005 (first post-invasion Parliament); February 2009 (local elections)
• Groups competing in the elections
o State of Law Coalition (led by current Prime Minister Maliki; purports to cut across religious and tribal divisions)
o Iraqi National Alliance (mainly Shia)
o Kurdistan Alliance (dominated by administrator’s of Iraq’s northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region)
o AL-Iraqiyya/Iraqi National Movement
o Iraqi Accord Front (led by Sunni politicians)
o Tribal Leaders
o Minorities (Turkmen, Christians, Sabeans, Yazidis)
The World Looks On: Why it Matters
The international community has been following intently the outcome of the elections. The US, European Union, and Middle Eastern states all have interests to protect in Iraq.
Iraq has long been seen as a pivotal center of Middle Eastern influence that remains a gauge of the future of Middle Eastern democracy. As the Obama administration looks to withdraw troops by the end of this year, Iraq’s ability to conduct fair and peaceful elections is of vital concern. Following the vote, President Obama stated, “Today’s voting makes clear that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq.” The administration views the success of these elections as a step closer to its pledge of pulling all combat troops by August 31, 2010 and withdrawing the remaining 50,000 security forces by the end of the year.
The U.S. has also been dedicated to building a non-sectarian, democratic regime in Iraq. Regime change in Iraq has been a foreign policy objective for the U.S. most especially since President George W. Bush’s administration and his decision to unilaterally invade and overthrow the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. The elections are of interest to the U.S. in great part because they have the potential to be a concrete symbol of an end to a violent flow of sectarianism. Successful elections could also mark an official victory of this process of nation building. The elections are a demonstration of Iraq’s ability to manage a peaceful transition after a war effort that overthrew the Saddam dictatorship, beat an insurgency, and attempted to build a stable country.
Iraq’s transition to a peaceful democracy with strong regional governments is a true test of U.S. foreign policy in the region. Successful movement towards democratic development will help allay U.S. fears that Iraq is a hopeless cause and that its efforts over the past decade have been in vain. Successful elections will perhaps signal a new phase of U.S.-Iraqi relations.
Geographically closer to Iraq than the U.S., the European states all have an interest in a stable Iraq whose chaotic nature lies in its backyard. It is no secret that the EU countries have been split over the decision of the U.S. to invade Iraq back in 2003, but Europe does have an undeniable stake in the future of a democratic Iraq. This European interest in reforming and stabilizing Iraq is rooted in three main reasons—oil, trade, and refugees.
Iraqi oil exports are no doubt of interest to the Europeans. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Iraq was the world’s 13th largest oil producer in 2008 and has the third largest petroleum reserve after Saudi Arabia and Canada. Furthermore, just a fraction of Iraq’s known fields are developed and actually exploited for export revenue. Therefore, the Europeans see the vast potential for oil trade with Iraq. In order to take advantage of these vast oil reserves, the Iraqi political structure must be stable enough to administer production.
The European Commission for External Relations has officially stated that given Iraq’s important role in the region and potential as a trading partner, there are clear benefits of developing ties with a strong and stable Iraq. The Commission has declared steps that it will take to strengthen ties through bilateral trade agreements and a 2006 commission for renewed engagement with Iraq. Iraqi exports to the EU-27 have steadily increased over the last several years reaching a level of €9.1 billion in 2008, according to Eurostat. The EU is Iraq’s second most important export partner accounting for approximately 27 percent of total Iraqi trade and is behind only the United States in brute numbers.
Additionally, the flow of Iraqi refugees into Europe has been a major concern. The European Commission calculates that support for this refugee crisis has accounted for more than €140 million. In November 2008, the EU announced it would accept 10,000 Iraqi refugees, many of whom were living in harsh conditions in Jordan and Syria. The UN calculated in 2007 that the number of Iraqis who fled the country since 2003 was two million. Therefore, the EU has a viable interest in stabilizing Iraq and limiting the influx of refugees into their own distressed economies during this period of global recession.
Middle East Neighbors
Many of Iraq’s neighbors have been watching the elections with trepidation wondering what type of government will be left behind once American troops are withdrawn at the end of 2010. Countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are curious as to how the political vacuum will be filled once the U.S. withdraws after nearly a decade of occupation. These neighbors are interested in resolving the refugee situation, averting a radical Shia-dominated government under the influence Iran, and developing stronger business relations with Iraq.
Jordan, a largely Sunni Arab state, is home to the second largest population of Iraqi refugees after Syria. Refugees International notes that these Iraqi refugees live in extremely vulnerable circumstances and most have not been granted legal status. Human Rights First estimates that Jordan is currently hosting 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqi refugees in spite of its small size and limited resources. This accounts for ten percent of the total Jordanian population. Jordan is also home to vast number of Palestinian refugees. As a result, Jordan hosts the largest number of refugees, per capita, than any other country in the world. The Jordanian government feels tremendous pressure from this influx of refugees and looks forward to a more stable Iraq to which these refugees can return.
Many of the moderate Arab states, namely Jordan, fear that if the Shia-dominated party gains power in Iraq the country will be severely vulnerable to greater a dangerous Iranian influence. Iran is intently interested in a Shia victory in Iraq and has explicitly supported the Iraqi National Alliance, a bloc of religious Shiite parties. Victory for a non-sectarian party will be seen as a defeat of Iran and its attempt to export its radical version of Islamic rule.
This radical Iranian influence will also affect business opportunities and commercial interests for Jordanians and other Arab neighbors. Many Jordanians look forward to the time when Iraq’s stability allows greater commercial interaction between the neighbors and engaging in joint economic investments. In January 2010, a free trade agreement between Jordan and Iraq came into force and helped to reinvigorate this economic relationship that has suffered severely since the US invasion. Poor security and political instability has been a major impediment to greater commercial ties. The emergence of a strong, democratic Iraq will surely be a hopeful sign for furthering economic relations,
An Uncertain, yet Hopeful, Future
No longer defined solely by national concerns, elections of all types have been flung into the international spotlight because of their widespread, global effects. Iraq is no exception as these elections have captured the attention of the world community as it holds its breath to see what kind of Iraq will emerge—democracy or division? There are concrete interests at stake for several international players. There is hope for democracy, but the road ahead will be a tough one to navigate.
For further information, please consult:
NY Times Video on the Iraqi Elections: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/03/08/world/middleeast/
1. Iraq’s Vote- Only the Beginning. 3 March 2010 http://carnegieendowment.org/
2. See: “Iraq Election: A Defeat for Iran.” 18 March 2010. http://frontpagemag.com/2010/03/18/
3. “Iraq Election Turnout 62%, officials say.” 9 March 2010. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/
4. See BBC Guide to Groups Competing in Iraqi Polls. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/
5. “For Obama, Iraq Elections are Good News.” 8 March 2010. http://www.cnsnews.com/news/print/62411
6. See: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/Iraq/Background.html
13.UNHCR Statistics: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17647764/
18.“Jordan Sees to Rekindle Trade with Iraq.” Financial Times. 11 January 2010. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/eb7