Dozens were killed by bomb explosions at an Iraq campaign rally Friday, offering a sobering preview of critical parliamentary elections scheduled to take place next Wednesday, April 30, when voters will turn out for the first nationwide ballot since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.
Security concerns are primary. Baghdad has struggled to contain a surge of violence that in recent months has rivaled the death toll reported in neighboring Syria. Since January alone, over 2,500 Iraqi civilians have been killed in sectarian fighting. Already voting delays have been announced in Anbar province, where the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi have experienced near-constant violence since security forces moved in to end a Sunni protest movement; the national election commission warns that voters in those areas may be unable to cast their ballots at all. The fierce sectarianism cleaving the country is also apparent in campaign propaganda and party alliances. In the meanwhile, frustration with the ruling State of Law party is high, as is resentment towards Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-dominated government is blamed for marginalizing Sunni and Kurd minorities alike.
Yet, despite all the obstacles, the Iraq vote does have one positive factor surrounding it: uncertainty. Unlike other recent or upcoming ballots in the Arab world — i.e., Algeria’s presidential vote, which saw ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika nab a fourth term, and what looks to be a pre-determined Egypt election scheduled for late May — Iraq’s election represents a (relatively) fair race. The Washington Post notes, “Only in Iraq’s parliamentary ballot is real power at stake, and the outcome unknown in advance.” Maliki’s party is expected to gain a plurality, rather than a majority. Voters will have a swathe of names from which to choose; more than 9,000 candidates are running for 328 parliamentary seats.
That said, it is unlikely that Maliki himself will step down. Despite his government’s failures to resolve widespread insecurity, and indeed its seeming propensity for fostering sectarian conflict, the Iraqi leader has demonstrated remarkable resilience, boosted by divisions among his Shiite opponents, as well as infighting among Kurdish and Sunni factions.
So what will Wednesday’s vote change, if anything? Regional analysts warn that if Maliki remains in power, and continues his divisive politicking, Iraq’s current instability will worsen. In Anbar in particular, resentment towards Baghdad among disenfranchised voters could fuel further violence and foster alliances with al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants. Bad news for Baghdad and Washington, which will be watching Wednesday’s vote with an anxious, albeit detached, gaze. Yes, Iraq’s election could echo the recent Afghan ballot, which went more smoothly than predicted. But even in the best-case scenario — i.e., large voter turnout and limited violence — it’s hard to imagine that poll results won’t split along sectarian lines. Unless Maliki can bridge those lines, starting in Anbar, Iraqis may be headed for more of the same.