News Analysis: Provincial elections to reshape political landscape in Iraq 2009-01-30 22:16:34   Print

    by Fu Yiming, Gao Shan

    BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 (Xinhua) -- Iraqis face a milestone of reshaping the political landscape of the war-torn state on Saturday, as over 70 percent of its 15 million eligible voters are to cast their ballots in hundreds of polling stations across the nation's 14 provinces.

    In Saturday's regional parliamentary elections, the first nationwide election in three years, Iraqis will choose leaders for those provincial councils, when more than 14,400 candidates, about3,900 of them women, are competing for 444 seats.

A resident looks at the election campaign posters of a candidate in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, January 29, 2009.

A resident looks at the election campaign posters of a candidate in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, Jan. 29, 2009. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)
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    As for the other four out of its total 18 provinces, elections will be held later in the three semi-autonomous provinces ruled by Kurds and the one surrounding oil-rich Kirkuk. Votes there were postponed indefinitely since ethnic groups, namely Shiite, Sunni Arabs and Kurds there still yet to reach a consensus on a power-sharing formula.


    The vote is effectively an opinion poll on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki personally since he took office in 2006, and more importantly on whether this "Iron man" is able to continue his legend by finally winning the national election in December.

    Al-Maliki, a Shiite from Dawa, a small political party, was widely seen as a weak and transitory leader. But he soon won a general appreciation by tactfully filled rifts among political sects, religions and races.

    His image as a peoples' prime minister has won him increasing support, as he emphasized on secularism, reinforcing central government power while maintaining regional rights, and fighting against separatism.

    Additionally, al-Maliki's government gained other political points after he reached successfully with Washington a new security agreement last year, stipulating a set timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, something that former President George W. Bush had long resisted.

    All that has significantly boosted al-Maliki's prestige among Iraqis who are anxious to end foreign occupation as well as their domestic turmoil.

    Latest public opinion poll released by the National Media Center (NMC) showing that al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition got the most support of 23 percent, far ahead of former Prime MinisterIlyad Allawi's and Ibrahim al-Jaafari's parties. Al-Maliki also came in first at 23 percent as Iraqis' next prospective prime minister.

    Al-Maliki isn't running this time, but he has campaigned extensively for his Dawa party, especially in the south where his followers are locked in a fierce battle with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country's biggest Shiite party.

    If Dawa runs well in this election, analysts believe that al-Maliki's foundation will be solidified and hold a premiere stance for the national election in December.


    Currently, Iraq has three major groups holding sway separately, with Sunni Arabs controlling mostly west and middle provinces, Shiites in south and Kurds in north.

    Considering the vital importance of Saturday's regional elections as candidates chosen will later group the provincial councils, candidates from all three sects are scheduled to participate extensively for power.

    The outcome will show which party stands the best chance of success in parliamentary elections expected by the end of the year.

    Last national election in January 2005 was wracked by insurgency and Shiite-Sunni conflict that nearly plunged the country into full-scale civil war.

    The widely boycott by Sunni candidates consequently marginalized themselves, and enabled a disproportionate share of power, with Shiites and Kurds controlling seats even in provinces with big Sunni communities.

    Analysts believe that Saturday's elections serve as a "double-edge sword," meaning that the longtime violence waged by Sunni insurgents could be neutralized if the sect are given a fairer share of power, but the power restructuring in which some other groups who considered treated unfair could result in a rebound of violence, in northern regions in particular, where Arabs fight fiercely with Kurds for power.


    While countless posters and slogans fly in almost every streets and corners, days ahead these provincial elections are not quiet.

    Three Sunni candidates were brutally assassinated by unknown gunmen overnight Friday, signaling security situation here is still fragile, and might worsen during such a high-profile event.

    Despite shadow of violence lingers, citizens are eager to vote for someone who they believe can bring in their life more security and prosperity.

    Yet, in contrast to Iraq's three previous ballots since the U.S.-led invasion, which were held in the shadow of fierce sectarian conflicts, this one is strikingly open. Names of candidates participated and their parties represented are listed clearly for ballots.

    A credible election without significant violence would prove that the security improvements of the past 18 months are taking hold. But a deeply flawed one, hurt by violence and allegations of widespread fraud, could affect U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to call back more than 142,000 U.S. troops within 16 months.

    Immediately after taking office, Obama underscored that U.S. would end its "role in Iraq" as quickly as possible, and exit the battlefield "responsibly." However, he admitted a tough choice at hand after his inspection from the Pentagon, and said he "would listen to the military's suggestions."

    U.S. army generals warned that hasty troops withdraw could be disastrous, and could reverse the current security gains. Given the elections dragged Iraq back to chaos, chances that U.S. troops withdraw being postponed would be high.

    After inspecting in person security measures in polling stations in Baghdad, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Thursday that he would keep a close eye on Saturday's elections.

    Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said the Pentagon was closely watching the elections because their outcome "will be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year."

Editor: Yan
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