<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
Iraqis have gone to the polls to vote in the country’s first parliamentary elections since the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has claimed victory in a race that saw 9000 candidates vie for 328 parliamentary seats, even though he remains a rather divisive figure in Iraq. Despite being blamed for the growing sectarian violence, Mr. Maliki appears to have benefited from the lack of a unified opposition. Still, some are convinced that, should the Prime Minister win a third term, he will find it difficult to run a country that has become almost ungovernable due to institutional deterioration.
Resigned to the possibility of another parliamentary victory for Mr. Maliki, critics of the prime minister have been quick to point out the his administration’s shortcomings. For example, the Saudi Gazette takes aim at Tehran’s influence over Mr. Maliki, which they argue is partly to blame for the sad state of the region: “This disastrous state of affairs, which sees Iraq once more teetering on the brink of chaos, is the responsibility of one man and his squabbling, corrupt and lackluster government. Maliki has had eight years to lead Iraq away from occupation and division toward unity and prosperity. Guided by his scheming friends in Tehran, he has actively promoted disunity and provoked dissent and despair. Few elected governments can have been less effective.”
The National’s Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N Yacoub take issue with Al Maliki’s discriminatory policies towards the Sunni’s, who have resorted to violence to air their grievances: “Mr Al Maliki, a Shiite, rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other’s communities. Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight Al Aqeada-linked militants, while Mr Al Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen — and by 2008, the violence had eased. But the Sunni-Shiite violence returned, stoked in part by Mr Al Maliki. His moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi.”
Given the Prime Minister’s uneven treatment of the various Iraqi sects, the Peninsula editorial staff believes that Mr. Maliki “has missed a golden opportunity to build a modern Iraq after the exit of the U.S. forces. His biggest failure has been his inability to bring together the two dominant sectarian groups, Shias and Sunnis, which has caused the current rounds of bloodshed. As a prime minister and a Shia, he is not known for fairness and impartiality on sectarian issues. Critics say the heavy-handed treatment of minority Sunnis by his government has contributed to the unrest. Iraq has an uncertain future and this week’s elections are unlikely to make a difference. More than the elections, Maliki can contribute more to bring stability and peace to the country.”
The situation in Iraq has now deteriorated to such a degree that Gulf News contributor Joseph A. Kechichian believes that any victory on election day is likely to turn into a pyrrhic one for the Iraqi Prime Minister: “Although opposition forces condition their participation in scheduled elections in all three countries on account of unprecedented gerrymandering and assorted illegalities, chances are good that bland and largely ineffective officials will reassert themselves in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus....Whether Al Maliki will now be able to withstand the coming political onslaught remains to be determined....Though Al Maliki may claim victory, the prime minister no longer ruled Iraq, as the country embarked on gradual institutional deteriorations, best illustrated by steady defections from the army.”
Still, many believe that despite the ongoing violence in the country, the fact that Iraqi voters have turned en masse to express their political preferences is already a big step forward: “The country, which is severely marginalized on sectarian and ethnic lines, is in the midst a new crisis as terror groups are openly challenging the writ of the government....More than 9,000 candidates competing for 328 parliamentary seats pose a litmus test for ballot’s future in Iraq. The fact that this is the first election since the withdrawal of U.S. troops makes it a momentous event for the local security forces. Apart from maintaining peace, what will determine the elections’ credibility is the margin of turnout. For a heterogeneous society like Iraq, ballot is the easiest option to make its inclination felt. That is what Iraqis have to do by queuing at the booths to make themselves heard loud and clear.”
In fact, there are those, like Asharq Alawsat’s Wafiq Al-Samarrai, who are upbeat about the country’s future, believing that after years of sectarian violence and dismal economic performance, Iraq might just be turning the corner: “Iraq today is in a healthy condition, regardless of the negative appearances. Nothing can be more in the interest of Iraqi society than individuals moving beyond their sectarian and ethnic identities and towards a national one. Such factionalism has shed the blood of the Iraqi people and hindered the progress of their country....Despite violence and corruption, Iraqi society is beginning to recover. Even if it takes a long time to spread culture and reform, all that is needed is the growth and promotion of patriotic awareness, and the confrontation of the dark forces of extremism and sectarianism, and preventing them from tempting the youth. No other means can be more effective in this than a media detached from the sectarianism, racism and reactionary incitement that have brought Iraqis nothing but backwardness and strife.”
Questions remain though, and as Fatih Abdulsala underlines in an op-ed for the Iraqi news site Azzaman “there are so many questions that are left without answers. Will the elections eventually produce a government that goes about its work in a normal way and moves out of the fortified ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad? Will the new government turn its attention to the urgent needs of the population living amid fear and mounting violence? Or we are going to have a government that says it is legitimate but in reality it is part of sectarian tensions that have been stalking the country for more than a decade....It is a pity that the country has not utilized general elections to form a government that will take the society to the level of a civil, urban and democratic society whose existence is based on foundations of justice, prosperity and welfare, given the wealth and riches Iraq is endowed with.”
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