For the first time since American troops withdrew from Iraq, the country voted on Wednesday to elect a new parliament. With an estimated twenty million Iraqis registered to vote, millions were expected to trek to their nearest polling station to cast their ballots. Yet many were as concerned about the threat of violence as they might have been excited about having a say in their country’s political future.
Monday’s early balloting was an uninspiring indication of things to come. Members of Iraq’s security forces were allowed to vote two days earlier than the general population. Twenty-seven of those soldiers and policemen did not return to their families: coordinated attacks from eight suicide bombers struck polling places in Baghdad and elsewhere. Thirty Iraqis were killed in the northern city of Khanaqin when a suicide bomber blended in with a crowd of Kurds watching a video of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who is in Germany recuperating from a stroke. By the end of the day, 57 people were dead. Twelve more were killed on Tuesday.
Nearly 950 Iraqis were killed in the month of April alone, according to figures compiled by Iraq Body Count, a group that monitors casualties in the country on a daily basis. Three thousand Iraqis have been killed so far this year. Despite the best wishes of Iraq’s current government and its allies around the world, those numbers were expected to go up during election day — a prime target of opportunity for terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which exercises zero restraint in its targeting.
Iraqis are tired of the violence, the bribery and the shoddy services that the central government has provided them over the past four years. And yet, despite those complaints, analysts expect Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006, to win a third term.
For many, Maliki has been the only constant in Iraqi politics since the dark days of the 2006-2007 sectarian war and plays the lead role of “the devil you know.” Sunnis Iraqis, representing some 20 percent of the population, simply do no have the numbers to take a leading role in the government without help from the Kurdish and Shia blocs. But most Shia Muslims would rather have a Shia premier and Maliki is their only viable choice.
The elections will only be the beginning of the story. No party or faction is expected to gain a majority of the seats in parliament, meaning the winning faction will have to appeal to other politicians in an attempt to form a coalition government. If past elections are any guide, coalition-building in Iraq will take a number of months and Maliki will use all of his leverage and power to ensure that he gets the first shot at forming the new government.
If Iraqis are lucky, the elections will go about smoothly and with a minimal amount of violence. The next step would be for a coalition government to form without the inter- and intraparty fighting that has been a characteristic of Iraqi politics since 2003.
The more likely scenario is an election in which civilians are preyed upon by those who wish to overturn the political system altogether. And, after the voting concludes, the same old individuals return to their positions of authority over tens of millions of Iraqis.