Trying to make sense of what is happening in Iraq as the country heads toward the 7 March 2010 legislative elections is a challenge. After all, the 2003 US led invasion was meant to introduce the rule of law, democracy and good governance into the country. Yet, the electoral shenanigans (and I stress on the plural here as there are many of them afoot) have added to the sense of befuddlement and unrest felt by many.
Is it safe to suggest that Iraq is merely 'de-Ba’athifying' itself by getting rid of all prurient Ba’athist political influences traceable to Saddam Hussein? Or is it rather 're-ba’athifying' itself (with a small b) albeit in a somewhat different political format and in a seeming display of revanchist policies?
The drama surrounding those 511 candidates, out of an overall number of 6,500 who were disqualified by the Accountability and Justice Commission, and later also upheld by the Iraqi Independent High Election Commission, was that they were accused of having had ties with the Ba’ath Party.
Among those proscribed from running in the nationwide elections were the Defence Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, one of Iraq’s influential Sunni politicians. Why? Well, it seemed to many pundits that some politicians in Iraq, such as Mr Ahmad Chalabi, the erstwhile mercurial ally of the Bush-era neo-cons, were figuratively kneecapping their rivals in order to influence the outcome of those elections.
Disqualifying candidates for political motives, and in the process disenfranchising one critical segment of society, is alarming since it is vital today to coax the Sunnis back into the political fold and to convince them that the ballot box, not violence, is the answer to their aspirations and grievances. What is also necessary is to hold elections that are transparent and credible enough to allow the American planned withdrawal in summer. The threat of 'de-Ba’athification' as an attempt at controlling those politicians one distrusts or who are unwilling to bend to the diktats of political rivals must not be condoned by any political party - anywhere.
Nouri al Malki, leader of the Da’wa Party and principal player in the State of the Law coalition, is keen to be re-appointed as Prime Minister after the elections. But surely this does not mean that he could now overlook potential tyranny in a faint reminder of Saddam Hussein who rained so much violence, persecution and injustice upon his Shiite community. Yet his actions are becoming increasingly arbitrary, as manifested recently in the dispute with the Tikrit provincial council when he sent in the army to block the seating of a new governor in order to curry favour with the Iraqi Islamic Party. Or when he allowed the arrest of a leading candidate from one of the main rival blocs in Diyala province because the former had criticised the security forces. Was it not the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who chided politicians that he had had enough of Baghdad politicians and their sectarianism, incompetence, and relentless pursuit of self-interest?
If predictions are correct, and we must all be aware that they are fickle, Prime Minister Maliki’s coalition will come out as the biggest parliamentary bloc after the elections with roughly 80 seats drawn largely from the 18 Baghdad and Basra governorates, and possibly also Babel, Najaf and Diwaniyah. He will be followed by the former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Sunni Iraqi Ticket Coalition focusing on Anbar and Salahaddine governorates, as well as Nineveh and Diyala, whilst the Iran-leaning Iraqi National Coalition (INA) will come third.
Finally, the Kurdish PUK and KDP joint alliance with Talabani and Barzani will come in as the fourth main bloc by gaining Suleimanieh, Arbil, Kirkuk and Dhuk. Moreover, it will then end up as kingmaker despite the fact that it is facing a major challenge from Nashirwan Mustafa’s Gorran (Change) ever-broadening party within the whole of Iraq. Yet, with a 325-seat parliament, a majority of 163 is required to form a cabinet. This is why many analysts expect that the run up to the elections, let alone the months following it, will witness many fluctuations and possible last-minute surprises.
Over the past few years, the current political elites may well have invested their narratives of victimhood as one ropy way of securing power for themselves. But their long-term survival lies not in political vengefulness but in the political stability that follows a process of reconciliation. Otherwise, [in the] absen[ce]of such reconciliation, the spectre of civil war could hover once again on the Iraqi doorstep - a sad legacy arising from a noxious combination of self-interested politicians and an ill-judged American occupation.
So the key question is whether the 7 March will augur another fresh start for Iraq, or will it simply be a simulation of an old failure?
(c) Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/)