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Crucial Iraqi vote follows violent campaign season

After a campaign season marked by violence, 13.8 million Iraqis headed to the polls on Saturday for regional elections. The vote is seen as a test for Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who will have to overcome staunch Sunni opposition.


Following a particularly bloody campaign season, roughly 13.8 million Iraqis made their way to the polls on April 20 to cast their ballots in provincial elections.

They will be voting for members of local councils who, in turn, elect the provincial governors tasked with overseeing infrastructure and the administration of their province. More than 8,000 candidates are vying for 378 local council seats.

But the elections are particularly crucial, given that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has been contending with staunch Sunni opposition over the past three months. In regions where they are in the majority, Sunnis have been marching regularly in protest of the “discrimination” they consider themselves victims of – particularly contesting what they say are tightened anti-terrorism laws that target them.

Faced with these sectarian tensions and the threat of violence, the government has decided to postpone votes in the Sunni-majority provinces of Nineveh (in the north) and Anbar (in the west). “Al-Maliki did not have any problem excluding these Sunni provinces from the vote, despite advice to the contrary from the UN,” explained Myriam Benraad, an Iraq specialist affiliated with the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). “The ballot is therefore indeed biased, and Maliki will not go back on his decision, since he has the Iraqi army and security apparatus at his feet.”

Sectarian tension has also resulted in the postponement of votes in the northern province of Kirkuk and the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan. Consequently, only 12 of 18 Iraqi provinces will hold elections on Saturday.

A brutal campaign

For this first vote since the departure of US troops at the end of 2011, Iraqi authorities are under pressure to show that they are up to the security challenges at hand. Though inter-religious violence has declined since its peak in 2006 and 2007, tensions between the Shiite majority and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities remain high in the country.

Sunni extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda have intensified their attacks on Shiites and security forces this year in the hope of unsettling Maliki and his government. Indeed, March was the deadliest month in Iraq since August 2012. According to Benraad, “these armed groups want to derail any government initiatives, which they consider illegitimate because they were launched by the Americans”.

Moreover, the Iraqi electoral climate is generally prone to violence: all the country’s elections since 2005 have seen deadly violence. French daily newspaper La Croix quoted Ghati al-Zawbai, an official at the Independent High Electoral Commission, which oversees elections in Iraq, as saying that the campaign season leading up to Saturday’s election was deadlier than 2010 legislative elections or 2009 provincial elections. As many as 14 candidates, most of them Sunni, have been assassinated since the beginning of the year and dozens of bomb attacks have been carried out during political meetings. On April 15, a wave of attacks killed 50 and injured 300.

Though it may seem incongruous that Sunni rebels are attacking other Sunnis, Benraad explained that the electoral process itself is being targeted. “They consider Nouri Al-Maliki a recreant [because he is Shiite] and Sunnis who participate in the elections as traitors,” she said.

A test

Saturday’s elections are therefore seen as a test in several regards. Iraqi authorities will be able to gauge the popularity of Al-Maliki and “judge whether or not the new Iraq is capable of pursuing the path of democracy that has been laid out”, as Benraad said – in other words, whether the country’s political system can “resist attempts…at fraud or manipulation [of results].”

Moreover, the efficiency of the entire federal system (entailing separately governed provinces) is at stake. “Federalism in Iraq was conceived precisely to avoid the centralisation of power in Baghdad and the possibility of any authoritarian rule,” Benraad explained. “We’ll see if Iraqis choose to elect provincial officials capable of going toe-to-toe with Maliki.

She concluded: “The unfolding and the results of the elections should allow us to confirm or deny the direction Iraq appears to be taking: a return to authoritarian rule.”


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