Lest it be forgotten in our great inward-looking mood of domestic insecurity, I’m going to throw out a reminder that there is a world outside of our troubled borders. One thing which happened in that world recently was an election in Iraq. It was the fourth election since the US intervention there, but it set many firsts. It was the first election largely unmarred by violence. It was the first election where all of the security was provided by the Iraqi government. It was the first election where all of the religious, ethnic and political factions in Iraq participated. It was the most free and open election in Iraq’s history and probably the most democratic event in the region’s history. It was a dull election in many ways, but that’s really what you want in a country which has been through so much turmoil.
Over 400 different political blocs participated in the election, representing every imaginable minority group from Iraqis of African descent to Christians to Yazidis to Turkmens, as well as the larger groups of Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Elections in the northern Kurdish provinces are on a different schedule. Having realized the opportunities they lost by boycotting previous elections, the Sunni population participated in large numbers for the first time, finally free of fear of reprisals from insurgents and terrorists. Overall turnout was 51%, lower than in the 2005 election, which may be a sign of growing complacency or a certain level of cynicism in the population. Turnout was highest in the Sunni provinces where voters have not been represented in the government for more than three years and are eager to participate.
Voting was still a high security affair. Cars were banned from many streets during the election and there were checkpoints with armed guards. There were some arrests of potential suicide bombers before the election and a few mortar rounds were launched at some of the polling locations, but on the whole the level of violence was low. When the voting was over, most Iraqis walked safely back to neighborhoods where the cafes and shops were open and it was possible to walk the streets without the threat of violence from religious fanatics and criminal gangs. You could even buy Arak (in violation of Muslim law) in liquor stores and clubs if you wanted to celebrate with a toast.
This election does not change the national government. That vote will come next year. Iraq’s government is elected and representative, but it’s a peculiarly hierarchical system with power distributed between federal and regional governments, with scores of political parties and elections where you vote for groups of candidates rather than individuals. It’s not democracy as we know it, but it is a unique hybrid system which seems well suited to the special character of the emerging nation.
In these provincial elections it looks like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s moderate coalition performed well, as did the Awakening faction of tribal groups in Anbar province and various Sunni parties. The most ground appears to have been lost by religiously extreme Shiite groups like the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq whose insurgent allies were effectively destroyed by government forces last year and whose former terror-ridden constituents have moved to support more secular parties in a likely backlash against sectarian violence and against their connections with Iran.
There are still problems in Iraq. One reason voter turnout may have been low is a general dissatisfaction with a government which is seen as corrupt and inefficient, but at this point the country appears to be about as functional as it was under Saddam Hussein, with a great deal more freedom and opportunity. To be entirely honest, conditions aren’t much worse for the average Iraqi than for citizens of many of the neighboring countries, and unlike many of those countries the citizens have the benefits of secular rule and reasonable laws and are relatively free from the scourges of slavery, intolerance and religious fanaticism. In fact, their experiences in the post war period seem to have taught Iraqis to value the secular traditions which set them apart from many of their neighbors.
The story of Iraq’s painful transition from autocracy to freedom is certainly not over, but in this election Iraq has passed another significant milestone in its evolution into a functional, independent nation with viable, representative government.