Sectarian Divisions to Dominate Iraqi Election

An Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote. Credit: Reuters-Ali Jarekji. i i

hide captionAn Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in Amman, Jordan, on Dec. 13, 2005. Expatriate Iraqis began voting two days before the country goes to the polls nationally.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters
An Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote. Credit: Reuters-Ali Jarekji.

An Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in Amman, Jordan, on Dec. 13, 2005. Expatriate Iraqis began voting two days before the country goes to the polls nationally.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters

Knitting together Iraq's fractious sectarian and religious groups into a cohesive political body is the goal of Iraq's first election since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

Ethno-Religious Map of Iraq

Ethno-religious map of Iraq. Credit: NPR. i i

hide captionIraq's Sunni Arabs are concerned that the new constitution and government may lead to the enshrinement of Kurd and Shia mini-states in parts of the country where those groups are dominant.

Ethno-religious map of Iraq. Credit: NPR.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs are concerned that the new constitution and government may lead to the enshrinement of Kurd and Shia mini-states in parts of the country where those groups are dominant.

Yahia Said, a researcher at the London School of Economics and a regular visitor to his native Iraq, tells NPR.org producer Wright Bryan that he expects the election will only reinforce Iraq's sectarian divisions.

Who will have the greatest influence on the election results?

It is not a person who will have the greatest influence on results. Sectarianism will be the deciding factor for most voters.

The main sectarian parties are the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) — the religious Shia coalition that now holds about half the seats in the transitional parliament — the Kurdistan Alliance and the Iraqi Council of National Dialogue for the Sunnis. These are parties that have defined themselves in terms of their ethnic and religious communities.

How is this vote different from the one for the transitional parliament?

The biggest difference is the lack of a boycott by the Sunnis. This time around most political leaders, including those close to the insurgency, are calling for Sunnis to participate in the vote.

This carries over to security for the vote, with political groups close to the insurgency calling for a halt in violence for the vote.

Changes in the election law since the last vote will push power down closer to the regions. It's very difficult to predict how this will affect the next parliament. One thing for certain is that it will lead to a more fragmented body.

Is the secular vote going to grow in this election?

It's very difficult to predict if there is a movement towards the secular parties.

The UIA's poor performance in government may lead Shia voters to punish the religious parties at the polls. Yet Iyad Allawi's performance in government — particularly his support of U.S. troop actions Najaf and Fallujah — has turned some off of support for him and his Iraqi National Accord.

Are women a factor in the election?

The last time around they participated in large numbers and there's no reason to see that changing. They are important because they are the most likely crossover voters in the electorate, willing to look beyond sectarian lines.

What about the U.S. presence in Iraq?

It is a major issue in the campaign. Almost all parties indicate they will work for a U.S. withdrawal. The parties only differ on when the U.S. should leave, sooner or later.

What do Iraqis expect from the election?

Their hopes and expectations are that they will get a government that is more stable. They want a government that is capable of addressing their concerns regarding public services, security and employment.

At the strategic level, the Kurds hope to solidify their state of relative independence, the Shia hope to solidify their hold on power and the Sunni hope to win a seat at the negotiating table where the future of Iraq will be forged.

How will you tell whether the elections are a success, or not?

The first, most important criteria will be the level of participation throughout the country. A large turnout would be a good sign.

The second criteria we should use to evaluate the election is whether voters cross sectarian lines and vote along political lines. The Iraqi voter has been divided along ethnic and sectarian lines and these sentiments have been on the rise. It will be a particularly good sign if the voters go outside of their ethnic and religious groups when voting for parliamentary candidates.

Will anyone emerge from this election as a surprise leader?

The biggest surprise would be if the secularists won; that would be a pleasant surprise. That would reduce the momentum towards civil war that we face today.

A more expected outcome is that sectarianism will remain entrenched.

Yahia Said is a research fellow at the London School of Economics. He specializes in issues of transition and conflict. He is also the director of Iraq Revenue Watch and travels regularly to Iraq.

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