Iraqis are scheduled to go the polls on May 12 to elect a new parliament which would, in turn, choose a new government. You might say: So what? What's the big deal?
The first reason why this is still a big deal is that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis still seem committed to pluralist elections as the sole means of choosing their government.
An overwhelming majority of Iraqis still seem committed to pluralist elections as the sole means of choosing their government. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/ Lance Cpl. Shane S. Keller/Wikimedia Commons.)
In 2003, when talk of holding elections started in newly liberated Iraq, few people believed the Iraqis would understand the electoral process let alone develop a taste for it. One lost count of American and European "experts" who mocked the very idea of free elections in Iraq where, they opined, the "Arab mindset" was firmly entrenched against winning power at the ballot box.
Democrat Senator Joe Biden, the future US Vice President under Barack Obama, laughed the whole thing off. "One man, one vote, once!" he quipped. His recipe for Iraq was the division of the country into three mini-states, not democratic elections.
However, when millions of voters emerged from ballot boxes proudly showing purple-dyed fingers, the mockers knew that the two-finger sign was meant for them.
The second reason why tomorrow's exercise is important is that its result isn't "fixed" in advance, something rare in the "Muslim World" where traditional methods of changing governments include coups d'etat, riots, assassinations and even civil wars. In Iraq itself, murdering the Caliph had been the main method of changing government and policy since the Abbasid times.
The third reason is that tomorrow's election could prove to be a major step towards the consolidation of Iraq's position as a serious nation-state and thus a key element of stability in a region bedeviled by decades of turmoil and conflict.
Potentially, in terms of demography, natural resources, geopolitical location and, above all, quality of manpower, Iraq has the wherewithal to become a major player in regional politics. Many clichés are used to dismiss Iraq's chances of redefining itself as a modern nation-state slowly devolving its democratic process.
Iraqis, we are told are divided into sects.
That assumption was peddled by the Western "experts" that President George W Bush hired to tell him what Iraq looked and felt like. The "experts" relied on Ottoman era division of the" subject people" into "millahs" or religious communities, ignoring over a century of historic development under British protection, a mildly authoritarian monarchy and successive ideology-based despotisms and their numerous opponents.
The situation became more confusing when sectarians, often encouraged by Washington, moved center-stage both as collaborators with the American liberator and his adversaries. Iraq was pushed into a war of the sectarians which the "experts" dubbed a sectarian war.
However, tomorrow's election will provide a dramatic illustration of Iraq's determination to move beyond sectarianism compared to previous elections in 2010 and 2014.
Those elections were contested by four big blocs: Two Shiite, one Arab Sunni and one Kurdish, fielding candidates under sectarian or ethnic labels. In this election, however, we have five big Shiite blocs, or lists, two Sunni and two Kurdish not to mention many other independent or trans-sectarian lists totaling over 80.
The alliances that have taken shape are prompted by political and even ideological,
rather than religious and/or ethnic considerations. And it is a major step towards a more sophisticated form of democratic politics in which where-you-want-to-go is more important than where-you-come-from.
Finally, the coming election may mark the beginning of the end for attempts by foreign powers, notably the Islamic Republic in Iran but also the United States, not to mention smaller regional players such as Turkey and Israel, to force their agendas on Iraq.
Because of the sectarian methodology imposed by Washington the future Prime Minister would have to come from among Shiites. Right now four leading candidates are in the field. The first is the incumbent PM Haidar al-Abadi who rose to his position because at a certain delicate moment he was seen as everyone's second choice.
Today, he hopes to emerge as the first choice of a majority of Iraqis thus rendering support from foreign powers irrelevant.
The second wannabe is former Premier Nuri Al-Maliki who first rose to that position as the joint choice of the Bush administration and the mullahs of Tehran.
Once Obama had decided to withdraw from Iraq al-Maliki, who had originally been cool on alliance with Tehran, decided or, perhaps, was forced to rely exclusively on Iran. But even today, and despite years of service to the Islamic Republic, al-Maliki is still regarded with suspicion in parts of the establishment in the Islamic Republic.
Iran's reserve candidate is Hadi al-Ameri, the militia commander of Hashad al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), handpicked by General Qassem Soleimani and his Quds (Jerusalem) Corps.
The fourth putative PM, regarded as the dark horse right now, is another former Prime Minister Ayad al-Allawi whose key trump is the ability to make a deal with both the Arab Sunnis and the Kurds as a consensus candidate.
Contrary to common "experts' view" I believe that one outcome of this election would be a gradual reduction in the influence of both Iran and the United States as a sense of Iraqi-ness" (Uruqa) cuts across traditional sectarian and ethnic divides.
Whatever the outcome of the election the next Iraqi government would continue to operate from a position of relative weakness if only because he would lack a strong base of his own.
But is that a bad thing?
The answer is: not in the short run. Since its creation as a modern a nation-state in 1921 and until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 Iraq always had strong governments which meant it had a weak or even non-existent civil society. In the past 15 years, however the balance has shifted in favor of the civil society which, in many instances, has had to start from zero.
Iraq may need two, three or even four more free and pluralist elections before an acceptable balance is formed between the power of the state and that of civil society.
In the meantime, whoever forms the future government in Baghdad must remain humble, steering away from grandiloquence, and focus on concrete policies that serve the bread-and-butter issues.
The first aim of the future government should be to make sure that the democratic process remains safe. Regardless of religious, sectarian, ideological or even political differences, all Iraqis share an interest in that.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by the kind permission of the author.