Iraq holds provincial elections tomorrow, the first elections since the pullout of US troops, against a backdrop of widening violence, a record number of assassinations of political candidates, and deepening political division.
Although overall attacks are at roughly similar levels as they were for the last provincial elections in 2009, at least 13 candidates and two political party officers have been killed in targeted attacks in the past few weeks – a record number. Almost 150 candidates have so far been struck off the list of candidates, most of them for alleged ties to the banned Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.
“It’s a showdown,” says Iraqi political analyst Saad Eskander. “They use 'legal' methods – expelling the ones they don’t want or by force – physical liquidation. This is an extension of politics, not an extension of terrorism.”
In Baghdad, where explosions in Shiite areas have become common, residents were jarred last night by a bomb that ripped through a crowded internet café in the almost exclusively Sunni neighborhood of Amariyah. Police said at least 25 people were killed and more than 50 wounded when the explosion tore through a three-story complex packed with young men and families relaxing at the start of the weekend.
Amariyah was an Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold and the first urban neighborhood in which Sunni neighborhood fighters joined US soldiers to drive out the organization.
No group has taken responsibility for the blast, though an interior ministry official linked the explosion to the provincial elections.
“I think this is a conflict between competing political parties,” said the official. He described it as a warning to supporters of moderate Sunni politicians allied with the Shiite-led government.
Baghdad has been under heightened alert for weeks ahead of elections for provincial council, with restricted access to many Sunni neighborhoods believed by the Shite-led government to be particular security risks. Armored vehicles and tens of thousands of extra troops are being deployed in the capitol.
The interior ministry says it has arrested several Al Qaeda leaders and seized more than 100 bombs over the past week.
The elections will be the first secured completely by Iraqi forces since US troops pulled out of the country in 2011. It is also seen as a test of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances for re-election in national polls next year.
A different story outside Baghdad
In an indication of the growing divide between Iraqi provinces and the central government, the Iraqi cabinet decided to postpone elections in the mainly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninevah for security reasons. The move, though, is also seen as propping up unpopular incumbent politicians and Prime Minister Maliki’s own hold on power.
With the Kurdish region holding separate elections in September, voters in only 12 of Iraq’s 18 provinces will be going to the polls tomorrow. Elections have also been postponed indefinitely in the disputed city of Kirkuk.
In Baghdad, campaign posters have plastered roundabouts and concrete walls for weeks. Among the most prominent are those for Mohammad Rubai’e, elected four years ago on a campaign he modeled on President Obama’s slogan of "Change."
“We aimed to produce change in four years but it’s difficult because there was so much destruction,” says Rubai'e, who switched allegiances from the largely Sunni Iraqiya to one of the main Shiite coalitions with wider support. “Iraq needs political reform that starts at the top to achieve visible change.”
At a recent campaign event on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, Rubai’e, a secular Shiite, met with Sunni tribal leaders, pledging to bring clean water to their agricultural area.
“We will vote for whoever listens to us and brings us services. We don’t trust the thieves. We know who they are now,” says Sheikh Raad Mutar al-Mehdi.
'Most democratic elections'
Despite the fact that voter turnout is expected to be around only 50 percent, this election is considered to be perhaps the most democratic in Iraq’s post-war history.
Parties and candidates needed a certain percentage of votes to win seats in previous provincial elections, meaning that if they did not reach that threshold, votes cast for them were discarded. That clause was removed after legal challenges.
In a more controversial move, the percentage of guaranteed seats for women has also been raised to 25 percent of the total in each province and for the first time, Shiite Kurds have been included in seats set aside for Iraqi minorities. The guaranteed seats for women potentially mean that female candidates who won very few votes will be given seats over male candidates with more support.