November 26, 2004

Iraq: January Elections - Or Not?

Representatives of as many as 17 political parties, including the two major Kurdish parties, met today at the home a highly-respected Iraqi statesman 'Adnan Pachachi (Al-Bajah Ji), and signed a petition calling for a six-month postponement of the national elections scheduled for January 30, 2005. In addition, at least three ministers of the interim Iraqi government were present.

The participants were the Sunnis, concerned that if elections take place in January, they will not be adequately represented in the resultant government. There are two factors at work here: the boycott demanded by many Sunni clerics, and the deteriorating security situation in the Sunni areas of the country. The concern is that the Sunnis will either comply with the demands for a boycott, or will be unable or unwilling to vote because of inadequate security.

On the surface, postponing the elections sounds like a prudent course of action. It gives coalition forces more time to battle the insurgents and improve the security situation, and the government will be able to put more trained security forces on the street to insure protection of polling places. If a postponement leads to increased participation in the elections, the resulting government will be more representative and likely more accepted. Perceived legitimacy of the new government will be critical.

That said, there will almost certainly be objections to a postponement - objections from the Shi'a majority. The Shi'a are aggressively registering voters in anticipation of a vote that validates their majority status. The moral leader of the Iraqi Shi'a, Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani, agreed to the elections, in fact, wanted them earlier than January. He believes that the Shi'a will dominate the resulting government, given their over 60 percent majority of the population.

In possibly related incidents, two Sunni clerics that support a boycott of the elections have been murdered in Mosul (Al-Mawsil). This may signify a divide in the Sunni community. Reality may be setting in - senior Sunnis are beginning to realize that there will be elections. The elections will determine the shape of the new government. Failure to participate in the process means marginalization and virtual abdication to the Shi'a majority.

Combined with the participation of Pachachi, the agreement of the Kurdish parties in calling for a postponement is significant. The Kurds, staunch allies of the U.S. administration, represent a bit over 20 percent of the population. They too are wary of Shi'a domination and may be entering a tacit alliance with the Sunni Arabs to create a counterbalance. The petition for postponement will certainly have to be considered by the Iraqi Elections Commission.