The long road to democracy just got a little shorter

Despite al Qaida's efforts, the March 7 elections in Iraq were an undeniable achievement.

iraq elections 311 (photo credit: AP)
iraq elections 311
(photo credit: AP)
Both major blocs claimed victory following Iraqi elections held this week. With a final result not due to be published by the Iraqi Elections Committee until March 18, neither the Shi’ite-led State of Law list of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, nor former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi List – an alliance of secular Shi’ites and Sunnis – was willing to concede. Yet even before the final results are issued, the elections of March 7 may be seen as a qualified but significant success for Iraq as a whole.
First of all, the fact that they took place at all is an achievement. The last Iraqi general elections, in December 2005, ushered in a period of extreme uncertainty, and a major deterioration in security in Iraq. Sunnis, having participated in larger numbers than in the January 2005 polls, felt excluded from power. Rival Sunni and Shi’ite militias marked out their territory. And in February 2006, with the destruction by Sunni Islamist terrorists of the sacred Shi’ite mosque at Samara, the country seemed on the verge of sectarian civil war. Much bloodshed did follow, but the deterioration was partly reversed by the success of the surge.
The partial co-optation and arming of Sunni tribesmen perhaps prevented a bloddy split between Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs. But the larger political issue remained unresolved. The elections of this March were the test. Could the Iraqis hold workable, relatively orderly elections, involving a respectable level of participation from all sectarian groups?
Al-Qaida did all it could to intimidate the populace; 38 people were killed and a further 110 wounded in the course of election day. But 62.4 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on March 7 (15% below the turnout in 2005, but still comparatively high). Iraq appears to have passed this test.
Secondly, the fact that the elections took place with a respectable degree of Sunni Arab participation represents a further achievement. Because of demographics, a democratic Iraq is bound to be  Shi’ite-dominated.  Shi’ite Arabs represent an absolute majority in the country. The Kurdish minority does not seek to compete for overall power, but only to safeguard its interests. The Kurdish alliance will hold the balance of power in the new parliament, ensuring the ability to lobby effectively for their community’s concerns. Therefore these two groups have a built-in reason to commit to the system. The same does not apply to the Sunni Arabs. Their response was thus crucial.
This group had dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and it represents the largest, traditionally dominant group in the region – just not in Iraq. The final word is far from spoken on this matter, but the elections this week seemed to point to an acceptance by many or most Sunni Arab Iraqis that their interests could be best served by participation in the system, rather than an attempt to destroy it.
SO WHAT happens now? Once the breakdown of seats is known, the 275-seat parliament must elect a speaker. It must then elect a new president of the republic, who in turn will ask the leader of one of the major slates to form a government. The new government will almost certainly be a coalition, which further increases the uncertainty. The role of the Kurdish list will be crucial in any arrangement. The coalition will almost certainly be led by either Nouri al-Maliki’s or Iyad Allawi’s list.
The coalition forming process is likely to be drawn-out, with some analysts predicting as long as six months before a new government emerges. During that period, the incumbent coalition will continue to rule. The coming period will also be fraught with danger, as groups within whichever major alliance fails to win the elections may choose this moment to seek to re-foment sectarian strife.
Iraq’s neighbors – specifically Iran and Syria – may choose this moment to activate their clients within the country to further complicate the situation. Iranian influence is strongly felt in the  Shi’ite list that includes Moqtada al-Sadr, though the Iranians stand to exert influence in any coalition that emerges. Syria, meanwhile, is suspected of investment in the Sunni nationalist and Islamist bombers in Iraq.
Both these countries have an obvious interest in preventing the emergence of a stable, well-governed Iraq as a result of the US invasion of 2003. The creation of such a country would form the strongest argument possible against the “resistance” ideology of Iran and Syria, which depicts the key battle in the region as between puppets of the West and “authentic,” usually Islamist, and always anti-democratic, movements and states. Both Syria and Iran also have a more basic geopolitical interest in keeping a potentially powerful neighbor weak and divided.
Particularly as US forces begin to pull out of Iraq, and in the periodfollowing their departure, the hostile attention of the “resistancebloc” is likely to become more and more manifest.
So the road remains long to a stable and well-governed Iraq, with manyobstacles on the way. Euphoria would be reckless in the extreme.Nevertheless, the holding of a second genuinely democratic election inone of the Arab world’s central and historically most powerfulcountries is a significant success – for the coalition forces, who areset to quit Iraq next year, but more importantly for the Iraqi peoplethemselves. The key question now is whether the momentum can bemaintained.