February 7, 2009 --
By AMIR TAHERI
WITH the results of Iraq's latest elections nearly complete, it's clear that the nation has taken another major step toward lasting democratization.
A robust campaign - more than 14,000 candidates and 400-plus political parties and alliances competing for 440 seats in the provincial assemblies - gave Iraqis the widest possible choice of personalities and policies.
The election concerned 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces and more than 80 percent of the electorate. (The three Kurdish provinces will hold their elections later this year. Another state, oil-rich Kirkuk, was left out because of unresolved problems regarding its ethnic composition.)
The turnout, just over 51 percent, was four points lower than in the general election of 2005 - partly because some voters in Baghdad thought they'd do better by shunning the exercise. But turnout in the four mainly Arab Sunni states rose from an average of 14 percent in 2005 to as high as 65 percent.
The road is open for building a genuine federal system in the new Iraq, one in which the 18 provinces will enjoy a large measure of autonomy while the central government looks after defense, foreign policy, major natural resources (including oil) and national security.
This was the first election entirely organized and protected by Iraqis: No foreign troops guarded the polling stations or escorted vulnerable voters. Yet the election took place without major incidents. (Three candidates were murdered, ostensibly by tribal rivals, and two suicide-bombing attempts were halted.) In 2005, going to the polls was an act of heroism in the face of terrorists determined to nip the new democracy in the bud.
Although the parties in the Maliki-led governing coalition had a built-in advantage, thanks to their access to state resources, almost all ended up as losers.
Maliki's own party, Al-Dawa (The Call), is set to emerge as the largest bloc in the assemblies of four of the 10 mainly Shiite provinces. (It now enjoys such a position in just one, Karbala - and interim results show that Dawa has been pushed into second place by a secularist list in Karbala.)
The Islamic Party of Iraq, the chief Arab Sunni outfit in the coalition, looks set for defeat in three of the four states where the community accounts for a majority of the population.
In past elections, parties banded together based on sectarian allegiances, forcing the electorate to choose among religious lists rather than individual candidates and parties. This time, parties contested the election with distinct lists. (Many independents also ran as individuals or as groups of "concerned citizens.")
Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Iranian-backed mullah, had thrown his support behind a group under the label Al-Ahrar (The Free). The list seems to have won about 3 percent of the vote. Some potential supporters stayed away, especially in the slums around Baghdad. The Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI), another Iran-backed outfit, lost all four Shiite states it controlled. And the third major Islamist Shi'te party, Fadila (Virtue) lost in Basra, the only state it dominated.
One reason why Maliki's group did well in places may be his decision to drop the term "Islamic" from his party's name. He presented his list of candidates under the label "State of the Law."
For the last year or so, Maliki has propelled his wing of Dawa away from Islamism. All the parties that had the words "Islamic" or "Arab" in their names lost. By contrast, all those that had the words "Iraq" or "Iraqi" gained.
The election brings a new generation of younger politicians to the forefront of Iraqi politics - men and women with genuine local roots and little or no experience of years in exile. They're determined to act across sectarian divides.
The election is a blow to Iranian hopes of winning control of oil-rich southern Iraq through its Iraqi surrogates, turning it into a de facto Shiite republic controlled from Tehran.
The Shiite religious parties' share of the vote shrank from 44 percent in 2005 to 29 percent, as many Shiites ignored sectarian divides and voted on political, rather than religious, grounds.
This time, Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the principal Shiite clerical leader, refused to endorse any group or Shiite list. He believes Iraqis no longer need his guidance in elections, having gained enough political experience to make considered choices on their own. Opposed to the intervention of the clergy in politics, Sistani insists that Iraq today has a working democracy that needs no religious chaperon.
Since no single party is likely to win a majority in any of the 14 states, all will end up having coalition governments. Maybe Iraq is emerging as a model of democratization for the Arab world, after all.