Iraqi voters went to the polls Thursday to elect a new government that will lead Iraq for the next four years. More than 300 political parties and independent candidates competed to fill the 275 seats of the Council of Representatives, which will select a new President as the head of state and approve a new Prime Minister as the head of government. Iraq's new elected leaders will have a vital opportunity to mobilize popular support to restore stability and security, promote national reconciliation, rebuild the economy and society, and complete the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy.
At stake are not only the future of Iraq and the success of U.S. policy in that country, but also the outcome of the struggle of a critical front in the global war on terrorism and the future of the Middle East. The best possible outcome would the formation of a broad-based, inclusive government that could effectively provide security to Iraqis, boost the economy, drain away support for the insurgency, and function as a reliable U.S. ally against terrorism.
This is a long agenda that will take considerable time and effort to accomplish. Although the election results determining which party won how many seats will be the immediate focus of attention, in the long run the balance of power in the legislature will not be as important as the degree to which the various political parties can effectively cooperate within a national coalition to address Iraq's many problems. After the elections, the crucial work begins in forging a stable ruling coalition, agreeing on a power-sharing formula, and performing the daily work of government that is necessary to build trust between contending political factions, forge a national consensus for moving forward, and sustain hope for the future.
Iraq has made remarkably rapid progress in establishing the foundations of a democratic political system in less than three years after the war that ended more than three decades of dictatorship. Despite the doubts of many pessimists, Iraqis successfully pressed ahead with the June 2004 transfer of sovereignty, the January 2005 elections for a transitional government, and the writing of a constitution that was approved in October with a 78 percent affirmative vote, despite opposition from many Sunni Arabs, who dominated and benefited from Saddam's regime and now play a dominant role in the insurgency.
Despite the violent opposition of insurgents, a growing number of Iraqis have chosen to participate in the political process: 8.5 million voted in the January elections, almost 10 million voted in the October referendum on the new constitution, and signs indicate that an even greater number vote in this week's elections. A November poll conducted by the International Republican Institute found that 85 percent of Iraqis planned to vote this time around.
Sunni Arabs, in particular, were expected to vote in far greater numbers than they did in January, when many boycotted the elections or were deterred from voting by intimidating threats from various insurgent groups. This time, Sunni Arab political and religious leaders, who have openly concluded that shunning the elections was a mistake that set back their interests, called for their followers to participate in the elections to provide a stronger Sunni Arab voice in the next parliament. Sunni Arab parties also were expected to make a stronger showing than in January because the electoral system divides most of the 275 parliamentary seats by province, guaranteeing that Sunni-dominated regions will get representation. The number of seats won by Sunni Arab parties is expected to rise from 17 in the current parliament to somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 seats in the new parliament. The Iraqi Accordance Front (also known as the Iraqi Consensus Front), a coalition of three Sunni religious parties, is expected to be a leading recipient of Sunni votes.
The lack of Sunni participation in the transitional government has contributed to political instability. The Iraqi political system, despite the presence of substantial numbers of Turcomans, Assyrians, and other minorities, is essentially a three-legged stool. The transitional government stood on only two legs, supported by a coalition that represented Shiites (more than 60 percent of the population) and Kurds (about 15 to 20 percent). If Sunni Arabs can be brought into the next government, the stool would be much more stable. The inclusion of greater numbers of Sunnis in the government would undermine the appeal of Iraqi insurgents by making it clear that they are opposed not just to the presence of foreign forces, but also to the elected government.
Even if the Sunni political parties decide to stay outside the coalition government, they will wield considerable influence in the future debate over controversial issues such as amending Iraq's constitution, the role of Islam in the legal system, the pace and scope of de-baathification efforts, the sharing of Iraq's oil wealth, and the evolution of federalism. To the extent that the Sunnis are given a voice to influence government policy over these and other issues, they will be less inclined to support the insurgency.
The increased size of the Sunni vote is likely to reduce the number of seats won by the political parties that were the biggest victors in the January elections: the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite religious coalition that won 140 seats, and the Kurdistan Coalition List, a Kurdish umbrella group that won 75 seats. The United Iraqi Alliance is again likely to garner the most seats this time around, although the defection of Ahmed Chalabi and other secular Shiite leaders may further weaken it at the polls. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who leads the Iraqi National List, won 40 seats last time but may do less well this time unless he can siphon off some of the new Sunni voters.
There is likely to be a length period of uncertainty following the elections, as rival political parties jockey to gain enough support to form a new government, which will require a vote of support from at least two-thirds of the new parliament. Outsiders must be patient with this bargaining process: it is more important that the Iraqis form as broad a government as possible than that they form a government quickly. Iraq's political process may be messy and slow, but it holds the promise of drawing in enough Sunni Arab political leaders to drain away support for the insurgency and isolate and weaken the diehard Baathists and Islamic radicals who are implacably opposed to democracy.
In the long run, it will be less important how
quickly a government is formed than how effectively it can deliver
political stability, security, the rule of law, and an economic
revival to the Iraqi people. While Thursday's elections were
important, what happens after the elections is even more important.
Elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the
establishment of democracy. A stable democracy requires a
supportive civil society and a firm commitment to the rule of
The United States can help create the conditions for success, but ultimately only the Iraqis can build a sustainable democracy in Iraq. Iraq's new leaders must work together in an effective manner to improve the daily lives of Iraqis or they will squander the popular support bestowed by today's vote and risk plunging Iraq into a bloody civil war.
James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.