Those wishing Iraq the best held their collective breaths as that country’s provincial elections proceeded on Saturday, only to break out in a sigh of relief and pride over the novelty of such a big occasion passing by without any serious security incidents to report. The elections, despite some western reporters’ bleakest write-ups, were only marred by such mundane violations of a nature that campaign posters were still up within less than 100 meters from the polling booths; one can envision activist journalists, a demographic seized with cynicism about the prospects of democracy in Iraq, walking around with tape measures and scribbling ‘Gotcha!’ in their notepads.
January also marked the third month in a row whereby combat deaths of U.S. soldiers were less than or equivalent to deaths resulting from accidents or illness. Four U.S. soldiers died as a result of what some still call a ‘war’ last month, while eleven others passed away as an outcome of soldierly duties, the same duties one would expect during peacetime.
It is too early to dwell on the results of the elections. The assertions and leaks floating around at this time are contradictory, and the exact numbers—an initial tally by the Independent High Electoral Commission is expected by week’s end—are crucial in understanding what comes next. For example, we know by now that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s slate did exceedingly well in the Shia provinces and in Baghdad, but we still don’t know by how much. Whether Maliki managed to win by a majority of votes or by a plurality shall determine what the stakes are going into the parliamentary elections at the end of the year. The provincial elections would seem to indicate Maliki’s strongest showing, now and later; his standing would be expected to diminish slightly as the year unfolds, especially economic setbacks take their toll with the ensuing rearrangement of priorities for the Iraqi voter away from security issues, the prime minister’s strongest suit, to services and economic stability, his weakest. In this scenario, even if Maliki pulls together a plurality of the electorate to his favor in the forthcoming elections, it still wouldn’t mean than he can form a government.
However, one can gauge the options of the political actors at whose expense Maliki scored big, most significantly the Hakim family, and these options aren’t looking good. A defeat of the Hakims at the polls, and what that precipitates in public opinion concerning their future role in Iraqi politics, effectively translates into the paralysis of Iraq’s current political arrangement: the alliance of the Hakims, the Kurds, and the Sunni Islamic Party. The latter also seem to have suffered a defeat in the Sunni provinces, but again, we don’t know by how much. This leaves the Kurds in a most vulnerable position as the only survivors of an alliance who basic pillars go back to the days of the Iraqi opposition in exile. What this could all engender is anybody’s guess, at this stage.
Political uncertainly, in such a setting, is a beautiful thing, rather than a cause for concern. It means that ballots can turn politics on its head, and it means that this is a true democratic process. Those who never doubted that Iraq will survive and prosper, the ones who withstood the barrage of acrimony while watching their less-honorable fellow travelers repent their wayward principles, can savor this uncertainty, together with the realization that the war is over, it having been won.