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More Iraqis look to vote secular Dec. 15

Many see the nonsectarian parties as the best alternative for a unified and stable Iraq.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2005


Best friends Ali Zaydun and Jamal Hammudi have been playing dominoes on Friday nights for years. But now Ali is unable to visit his friend's house, because the Sunni Al Dora neighborhood is unsafe for the two Shiites (whose last names have been changed to protect their identities).

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Ali seethes at "a situation we never had before in Iraq," and says he blames the country's Shiite-dominated government. As a result, the young computer programmer supports the secular alliance of former prime minister Ayad Allawi in upcoming national elections. "Believe me," he says, "I hope every day Allawi can win and make one Iraq instead of all these separations of the people."

Like Ali, more Iraqis appear to be turning to one of the Dec. 15 election's secular parties as the best alternative for a unified and stable Iraq. Mostly it's better educated Iraqis or those from smaller ethnic groups who are making this choice, so their prospects for equaling the voting power of Iraqis following the electoral directives of religious leaders remains unclear.

But some of Iraq's top leaders say that the single most important choice Iraqis will make in the December vote will be between a secular and modernizing government and a religious-based one. The fact that Iraqis will be choosing their first permanent four-year government since Saddam Hussein's fall only adds to the significance, they say.

"This contest between the secular and religious visions of government is really the main choice to be made," says Adnan Pachachi, a prominent Sunni statesman who has joined Mr. Allawi's Iraqi National list. "It won't be decided in one election, but it is a basic choice between an open and progressive Iraq and one that is backward and continues to fall behind."

"Yes, there is an Islamic identity to the people of Iraq and their history," he adds. "But the question is if we will be Islamic in identity and modern and open, or more like countries where religion plays a more important governing role, like Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia. Those examples are not very inspiring."

Allawi - a secular Shiite and former Baathist turned Saddam opponent and CIA favorite, before being named prime minister in July 2004 - would appear to face an uphill battle. As prime minister he governed during intense battles in Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad's poor Sadr City slum, infuriating some key groups. His government was also accused of corruption. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified former Prime Minister Allawi's sect.]

Only 14 percent in January

In January's elections for a provisional government, Allawi only scored about 14 percent of the vote - compared with 51 percent for the "Shiite House" coalition that eventually formed the government that rules today.

The new government coming out of this month's elections will have to be able to win a two-thirds vote of the new parliament to be installed.

No one expects any one group to win even a majority of seats.

And even if the governing Shiite coalition registers a decline in support as anticipated, no one expects them to fall below a third - which means Allawi would have to attract moderate Shiite support in the new parliament to be named prime minister.

But observers say Allawi has several factors going for him now - in addition to the growing fears of rising sectarianism.

First, the nine-month-old government has disappointed even many Shiites, who find it has been incompetent and unable to even begin addressing Iraqis' key concerns of security and employment.

Second, the country's sizable Sunni minority has been registering in large numbers and is expected to vote this time around, unlike in January when they largely sat out the vote.

The dire and unchanged lack of security for average Iraqis will likely encourage voters to favor someone they consider to be a strongman, and that will help Allawi, some experts say.

"Some people associate Mr. Allawi with strength, so that and the fact that he does not talk like a sectarian may convince people he is better than the others," says Nabeal Younis, a senior lecturer in public policy at Baghdad University.

Allawi has his enemies