On January 31st, 15 million Iraqis will have the opportunity to elect provincial councils in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The importance of these elections for Iraq’s future political trajectory cannot be overstated: the results will reveal trends among Iraqi voters that no number of polls, flying shoes or loud demonstrations can ever clarify with any certainty.

However, even before the ballots are to be cast, the number of registrants for these elections reveals a sense of voter apathy. The Independent Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) had previously set August 14 as the deadline for the registration process—begun on July 25—at the time when the provincial elections were tentatively scheduled for last October. Two months of extensive awareness campaigns were launched during the summer to educate the Iraqi public about the need to register. By the end of the process, only 2.5 million voters had filled out the necessary paperwork. Since then, the registration process has been extended, and it is unknown if voter interest has picked up as the election campaigns got underway.

Voter apathy could go either way for the parties in power, namely the Shia and Sunni Islamist factions. A registered voter could be a party hack who is motivated by self-interest in keeping the status quo in place, or he or she may be an angry citizen who is about to cast a protest vote. At this point, we simply don’t know.

There are 14,800 candidates competing for 440 seats. That is a massive number reflecting a widespread participation in the political process, but it also marks a reality of political fragmentation. It means that an average of 33 candidates are competing for each seat; for most of them, the chance of winning is an unrealistic one given the presence of established political coalitions competing for the same prize. What will happen to the losers is another ‘unknown’: will they drop out of politics, or will they find ways of coalescing into a healthy and vibrant opposition?

Each Iraqi province offers up a unique set of variables, so it may be useful to take an in-depth look at a Shi’a province (Basra), a Sunni province (Anbar) and a mixed Sunni-Shi’a province (Baghdad) to get a better sense of the local challenges faced in each, as well as challenges that are national in nature.

Basra:

Basra’s election will reveal the true depth of the popularity seemingly enjoyed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For it was in Basra that Maliki came into his own when he battled the Sadrist militias last spring and wrested control of Iraq’s most important economic center back into the hands of the government.

Basra’s current Provincial Council consists of 41 seats. In the January 2005 provincial elections, 20 seats were won by a coalition patronized by the Hakim family, while 13 seats were won by the Fadhila Party. Maliki’s mainstream branch of the Da’awa Party had failed to win any seats.

Maliki’s chief challenge is to demonstrate that the Shia Islamist voting blocs of a city like Basra had shifted from the Hakims and Fadhila to his slate, aptly named ‘The State of Law’ coalition. It is unlikely that Sadrist sympathizers, much diminished in Basra and across Iraq, would vote for him, and since they are not running slate of their own, or seem to be supporting phantom slates, it is likely that Sadrist votes may back Fadhila. Maliki had hoped to build his base among Basra’s tribes, who were the first to rally to his call while fighting the Sadrists, but it seems as if he was unable or unwilling to bring aboard important local notables who have opted to run on their own slates.

Fadhila’s management of the province suffers from pervasive accusations of corruption, while the Hakims are disliked for their closeness to Iran, and for a controversial plan to make Basra the centerpiece of a constitutionally-allowable southern Shia ‘Super Region’ much akin to the one enjoyed by the Kurds in the north.

Another unknown is the Sunni vote, for Sunnis many account for as much as 10 percent of the population of Basra Province. They boycotted the last provincial elections (the main Sunni party the Islamic Party drew a little less than 5,000 votes), and won only one seat (out of 16) for Basra Province in the parliamentary elections of December 2005. It is probable that most Sunni votes will go to a Sunni slate as a means of showing their numbers in Basra, and the likely beneficiaries of this phenomenon are the two major Sunni slates (running nationally) that reflect either Islamist tendencies (the Islamic Party’s slate) or neo-Ba’athist tendencies (the list headed by MPs Khalaf Alalayan and Salih al-Mutlag).

Basra’s new Provincial Council shall consist of 35 seats (down from 41) reflecting a new allocation of seats calibrated according to population. While Fadhila and the Hakim faction will certainly cede some ground to incoming candidates back by Maliki, and others representing the Sunni minority, it is unclear what sort of traction secular lists will also have among voters. In the 2005 provincial elections, the main secular force benefitted from the patronage and incumbency of then Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, but only managed to garner 50,000 votes (compared to Fadhila’s 150,000). In the parliamentary elections held in 2005, Allawi’s slate, again the dominant secular slate running in Shi’a provinces, only managed to win two seats out of sixteen in Basra.

One of the Allawi’s parliamentarians has since broken off and formed his own faction: Wa’il Abdul-Latif al-Fadhl is probably the most significant non-tribal secular candidate running in Basra, and his signature issue is the establishment of Basra as a federal region all its own. However, it in unknown if the idea of the ‘uniqueness’ of Basra is widely popular, or even understood by the populace, and whether it would be enough of a rallying cry for al-Fadhl to make any major inroads into the dominance of Islamists. Al-Fadhl has managed to get 2 percent of Basra’s eligible voters to sign a petition supporting his plan, which prompted IHEC to begin the second phase of the process (as mandated by the constitution) that sought to collect signatures from 10 percent of Basra’s voters during the period of 15-21 December. Not enough signatures were collected: only 23,000 (out of a threshold of 140,000) voters signed on to the idea, prompting al-Fadhl to accuse IHEC of purposely sabotaging the effort by not opening enough registration centers, or actively advertising the drive.

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