The whole essence of functioning democracies is that the people are given the opportunity to bring forward wholesale changes if they are discontent with their government. Similarly they can vote for the same people again if they are content with the performance of their elected officials. However, what if the people are discontent with their elected officials, yet still vote for the same people? Can that be described as a functioning democracy? And is the problem with the political system or the people?
Unfortunately for Iraqis, they face that very problem. It’s been nearly 8 years since Nouri Al-Maliki first became the prime minister of Iraq. His reign started encouragingly, promises of security, electricity, jobs and money were met with wide spread support (mostly in the southern Shia Muslims half of Iraq, more on that in a bit). Maliki then signed the death warrant of Saddam Hussein, the man whom committed genocide against Shia Muslimss and Kurds living under him in Iraq, and his support shot through the roof. Most then expected him to build on his relative success and start building a beleaguered Iraq. How ironic is it then, that eight years later, after a stale and flat rein Nouri Al-Maliki is being compared to Saddam Hussein! Accusations of imprisoning political enemies, counterfeit charges and wide spread corruption are just three examples of how low his stock has fallen with the Iraqi people.
Therefore, a fair enough assumption for any functioning democracy is that the elections in April provide the best chance for Iraqis to implement wide spread change to the political horizon. However, I’m not holding my breath…and neither should you.
When looking back at all the previous elections held in Iraq post 2003, a pattern starts emerging; a worrying pattern that points to deeper problems than most are willing to confess. The vast majority of Iraqi people, it seems, vote along ethnic and religious lines only.
The elections in 2005 was the first democratic elections in the history of Iraq to set up a parliament and officials, president PM etc, (ignoring the January 2005 parliamentary elections which only set up a transitional government tasked with writing a constitution).
From figure 1 the extent of this problem can be seen fully. Baghdad and the south of Iraq (the mainly Shia Muslims areas) all voted for the National Iraqi Alliance (unsurprisingly the Shia Muslims party). The north and the west of Iraq (the mainly Sunni areas) all voted for the Iraqi Accord Front (unsurprisingly the Sunni party). While the north west of Iraq (the mainly Kurdish areas) voted for the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan (yep! You guessed it! The Kurdish party).
People might be excused for voting along ethnic and religious lines in 2005, after all it was the first elections and no one knew what to expect. But to go and do the same thing 4 years of complete and utter failure and corruption later provides the clearest indication that the problem is very serious.
Again, the Shia Muslims south voted for one of the two Shia Muslims parties, while the Sunni north and east voted for the Sunni party. The Kurdish region in North West Iraq also voted for the Kurdish party. The one change is the city of Kirkuk; it changed from voting for the Kurdish party in 2005 to the Sunni party in 2010. That is not surprising, considering that Kirkuk is one of the few Iraqi cities in which Arabs (Sunni and Shia), Turkmen (mostly Shia) and Kurds live together, therefore a fluctuation could be expected.
To be fair, no one was expecting a huge change from the 2005 elections result. However what was expected were small changes, small movements that suggested that Iraqis can look beyond ethnicity and religion when looking to build a brighter future for Iraq. However, the results only confirm the worrying pattern.-
Unfortunately, this pattern has very deadly repercussions for the average Iraqi. This blind and unconditional support for incompetent people and parties fuels deadly sectarian violence that has ripped the country to shreds. Random attacks on families because of their religion or ethnicity have become the norm, especially in Baghdad. While bombs, targeting mainly Shia Muslims, are treated as just another occurrence.
This pattern also gives rise to radicals; radicals who openly call for sectarian violence and killings. One example of a radical is Ahmed Al-Alwani, a Sunni hate preacher who openly attacks Shia Muslims religious symbols and calls for the unconditional killings of Shia Muslims (example). Ahmed Al-Alwani is also a member of the Iraqi parliament who was accused of running death squads.
However, the biggest problem with this pattern is the Iraqi people’s refusal to change. It is said that the first step in fixing a problem is accepting that there is a problem in the first place, and the Iraqi people are yet to accept that there is a problem. When asked, the average Iraqi will always point to the other side(s); it’s never their own fault, always the other side(s). A solution will only be found once the Iraqi people are able to look at themselves and accept the need for them to change, and not others.
Earlier this year I was in Iraq, and when the conversation inevitably steered towards politics Iraqi people were more than happy to voice their discontent on the current situation and how hard life has become for the average Iraqi. Yet, when asked who they’ll vote for in the coming elections, the answer is generally the same: “I will vote for the same person I voted for last time”, and this is the whole problem reduced to a sentence. A Shia Muslim Iraqi refuses to vote for a non-Shia Muslims official, a Sunni Iraqi refuses to vote for a non-Sunni official and a Kurdish Iraqi refuses to vote for a non-Kurdish official.
On the 30th of April 2014, Iraqis will again flock to polling stations regardless of the inevitable threats lobbied against them by terrorists and they will vote. They will pose for photos with their purple fingers and they will believe that the decisions they’ve made will improve their lives in the coming 4 years. However electing the same officials and the same parties for a third term running doesn’t solve anything, it only deepens the problems and I worry that unless whole sale and long term changes, in terms of elected officials and voting behaviour, are implemented the next 4 years will only be as bad as the previous 4 years and in 4 years time we will be facing the same problems. This pattern of death and destruction has to be broken for Iraq to move forward and it will only be broken once Iraqis vote for the right candidate based on his/her qualities and qualifications rather than ethnicity or religious affiliation.
Aimen is on Twitter, @AimenTaki