On April 30 Iraq will hold its first nationwide elections since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Elections will be held against the sobering backdrop of escalating violence and the resurgence of sectarian fighting which underscores the instability and considerable uncertainty facing the country’s future.
In recent months, Iraq has experienced a surge in sectarian violence which has now spilled into the perimeters of Baghdad from neighboring provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala where insurgents have gained strength and seized key infrastructure.
Despite the efforts of the US during the war in Iraq to stabilize the region and quell the insurgency, much of the Anbar province remains beyond the control of the central government and Fallujah has once again fallen into the hands of militants with multiple armed groups warring within the city. The government appears powerless to resolve the situation, as Iraqi security forces have been unable to overpower insurgents and continue to lose territory and suffer significant casualties.
The deteriorating security situation has raised concerns that many will be unable to get to the polls, which will have a significant impact on election turnout. The United Nations estimated that hundreds of thousands have been displaced, with more than 400,000 people in Anbar alone having been uprooted by violence.
In particular, the discontented Sunni minority, who claim to be marginalized by the current government, face unique obstacles to casting their vote. The minority community continues to face an ongoing campaign of threats and violence from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a radical Islamic offshoot of al Qaeda, who are actively attempting to deter Sunnis from voting. This has only been compounded by recent flooding in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni dominated area west of the capital, which has been declared a disaster zone.
Election security remains a top priority, as polling stations across the country were targeted in multiple attacks. Just two days before the elections are scheduled to be held, 6 suicide bombers struck various polling sites while security forces went to the polls to cast their early votes. At least 36 people were killed and another 60 injured in the east, and another 5 people were killed and 9 others injured as an explosive device was thrown into a polling station in western Baghdad. Many fear that Election Day will bring more violence and bloodshed.
While no party is anticipated to win a majority in the parliamentary elections, it is widely expected that the election will be won by an alliance led by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. If this happens it would potentially exacerbate tensions within the country, as many of Maliki’s opponents continue to accuse him of centralizing power, provoking instability, fueling sectarian divides and undermining democratic progress.
However, if we have learned anything from the country’s last election 4 years ago, Iraqi politics are highly unpredictable and volatile, making the results difficult forecast. There remains a great deal of uncertainty with 9000 candidates fighting for 328 seats in parliament.
One thing that does remains certain; external influences will continue to play an important role in impacting elections in Iraq. Particularly with the decline of US influence over Iraqi domestic politics in recent years, following the withdrawal of troops, neighboring Shiite majority, Iran, has become a key player and wields significant sway over Iraqi politics.
The reemergence of violence, which nearly tore the country apart 8 years ago, highlights the deteriorating conditions and precarious state of security within the deeply divided nation. There is a great deal is riding on the outcome of these elections, including the future stability of the country and maintaining any gains achieved during the US war.
Iraq faces significant obstacles as it grapples with religious tensions, ethnic divisions, ongoing corruption, the abuse by security forces and the presence of radical Islamic groups. The only way to meet the many challenges that lie ahead, and restore some semblance of stability, is to obtain a much needed, albeit unlikely, change of the country’s fundamentally faulty political landscape. At the very least, despite few reasons for optimism, we can hope that these upcoming elections bring together a government which will unite the country in these trying times.