Iraq’s first elections since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011—provincial contests to be held on April 20—are a historic step for the country’s young democracy. They will have significant implications for the future of democracy, stability and peace in Iraq.


Iraq first elections since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011—provincial contests to be held on April 20—are a historic step for the country’s young democracy. They will have significant implications for the future of democracy, stability and peace in Iraq.

The last round of provincial elections occurred in 2009. Iraqis who participate in the process will have an opportunity to vote for the provincial councils of their respective provinces. That the elections will proceed (with some limitations) despite terror attacks, violence and political polarization is itself a triumph of sorts; many had believed that the provincial elections would never happen.

The process does, however, face some challenges. The elections will not take place in all 18 Iraqi provinces. Only 12 provinces will hold elections to elect provincial council members to four-year terms.

The three provinces forming the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) hold their elections separately. The last round of provincial elections in KRI was in 2005, and because the councils’ terms have expired, a host of political, technical and legal disagreements among parties affected have led to no elections since. Efforts to organize elections later this year are underway, but the issue has been entangled in questions over whether the president of Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, can run for a third term. Yesterday, President Barzani set September 21 to hold parliamentary and regional presidency elections, but the decree did not include provincial elections. That could mean further delay.

In addition, Kirkuk, which did not hold an election in 2009, will not do so this year. The parties representing the ethnic and religious diversity of the province have not been able to agree to hold elections in accord with current election laws, fearing the changes in representation they might bring. Nor could the parties reach consensus on an alternative.

In addition, the national government in Baghdad decided to postpone elections in the Sunni-majority western provinces, Anbar and Nineveh, for security reasons. Public protests have been happening in those provinces for the past four months. The Sunni provinces accuse the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of marginalizing them and abusing the country’s terror and accountability and justice laws.

On the national level, the Shia parties have strived to maintain a united front. These provincial elections, however, will witness internal competition among the Shia forces and may provide an indication of Shia political tendencies in national elections in 2014. That is what happened in 2009 when al-Maliki’s list of candidates made major gains.

What Lies Ahead

Though the provincial elections are an exercise of democracy, the overall electoral trends in Iraq may be reflecting a loss of momentum or—in certain parts of the country—a possible reverse in democratic gains. The outcome of the provincial contests might highlight the fault-lines in Iraq’s political, ethnic and sectarian map. That could be a harbinger of what’s to come.

As the rest of the country moves at a different pace and even a different direction, these minority provinces may become further discouraged to hold elections in the future. In terms of a national identity, it might imply that certain provinces are less important than others. Sectarian divides could be exacerbated, resulting in more instability. Even where elections will take place, candidates have been killed—over a dozen so far—or withdrew under threat. Given the toxic political environment, the rivalries and electoral history in Iraq, the integrity of elections will come into question by some.

Whatever the outcome on April 20, regional factors will be key. Security, services, jobs and inclusion mostly happen at the local level. Following the Arab Spring, different Iraqi provinces witnessed public demonstrations against government corruption, lack of public services and unemployment. These protests brought instability, violence and sometimes loss of life. Equally important, they caused further strain on the relationship between the security forces and the people.

Even if all provinces were to hold elections, these problems and public discontents will not go away. That would be true whether you have a provincial government that is comprised of one ethnicity or sect or multiple ones.

Political leaders have been talking to each other through the media rather than through direct dialogue, widening the country’s political divides. As a result of recurring and high-profile attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq, as well as political competition between and within Sunni and Shia factions, violence has spiked. But the Iraqi people, by and large, have shown a lot of resilience in not resorting to violence and shown a great deal of patience. But as seen in recent demonstrations in Anbar and Nineveh—and earlier in other provinces like Baghdad and even Suleimaniyah, which has historically been stable but witnessed demonstrations that led to loss of life in February 2011—such patience and resilience should not be taken for granted.

Political and other differences are normal, but it is important that they are dealt with peacefully through a process of dialogue and problem-solving. Our experience shows that even in complicated environments like Nineveh, Kirkuk and Baghdad, dialogue can lead to specific outcomes that pay off in terms of stability and well-being of the people. Dialogues need conveners, facilitators, mediators and parties who are willing to listen and find common ground. Iraqi civil society has played a substantial, positive role in these areas and should be tapped for solutions. They should not be joining any sides.

It was a local civil society effort by the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities in Nineveh that led to changes in Iraq’s national budget law in 2012. It is bringing a more equitable distribution of funds to districts and sub-districts in Nineveh and beyond, which has translated into service projects like hospitals, schools and roads. The Network of Iraqi Facilitators brought community leaders, local councils and provincial government together to resolve issues that caused instability in Babil, Nineveh, Diwaniya, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Diyala and focused efforts on improving services. It was also a civil society effort that brought justice and security actors in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra and Karbala together to address issues affecting the communities.

Whether a particular province gets a new council from the elections, stability and peace in Iraq broadly will hinge upon whether parties to any issue, dispute or conflict seek to resolve their differences through dialogue. History shows us that parties to even the most violent conflicts eventually have to come to the table to talk. Iraq has had this experience many times. 

The Iraqi people and their friends have sacrificed dearly for Iraqis to have a chance for a better, more peaceful future. Though the picture now may look bleak, Iraq has a lot of resources to draw on that can help turn things around. Dialogue is critical not only for a successful political process, but also for improving services, inclusion, employment and building trust in the government.

Manal Omar directs USIP’s Iraq, Iran and North Africa programs. Sarhang Hamasaeed is a program officer with USIP's Iraq and North Africa programs.


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