Friday, January 30, 2009

Voters prepare to test Iraq’s progress - Financial Times

By Andrew England in Basra

The grey, crumbling walls that line Basra's rubbish-strewn streets and surround scruffy buildings have long stood out as examples of the decay that has taken over Iraq's second city after years of violence and neglect.

Yet today, it is as if they have been injected with a new lease of life as they stand plastered with colourful posters that highlight both the different faces of Iraqi society and the battle hotting up for tomorrow's provincial elections. Alongside images of austerelooking bearded men in clerical robes are headshots of women in brightly coloured veils and businessmen in western-style suits, each vying for a seat in Basra's regional government.

Voters head to the polls for the first time in four years in provincial elections that will give an indication of how far Iraq has progressed, as the nation attempts to move away from years of violence to much-needed stability and reconstruction.

For western officials the elections will be a test of the Iraqi security forces' ability to maintain law and order as both the US and the UK look to withdraw their troops - the former in about 16 months, the latter by the end of July. They will also be an important indicator of whether groups that have fuelled much of the violence in recent years are willing to rely on the ballot box rather than bands of militia.

For war-weary Iraqis, fed up with corruption, mismanagement, killing and kidnappings, the polls offer a glimmer of hope that a new generation of politicians may emerge, with a focus on people's needs rather than the corrupt and sectarian politics that have dominated in the post-Saddam era.

"We want to choose the honest one who works for Iraq, not for himself," says Mohammed, a 19-year-old student.

His words are echoed by others in Basra, which has been ruled by Shia Islamist parties since the last polls in 2005 and is in desperate need of reconstruction. As Mohammed speaks a campaign vehicle zooms past with a loudspeaker relaying a candidate's pledge to rebuild and change the once dynamic port.

Such promises have been made before, only to vanish beneath an upsurge in sectarian violence that threatened to tear the nation apart and a despairing sense of malaise, fuelled not only by the bloodshed, but also by rampant corruption and mismanagement. Caution still prevails and turnout will be an important indicator of how many Iraqis are willing to put their faith in a political process that has produced mainly empty promises.

There are marked changes from 2005, in part illustrated by the swath of campaign posters adorning the streets.

It is the first "open list" election, under which voters get to see the candidates, rather than in 2005 when they simply selected from faceless party lists. Back then, most political groups were based on religion, but tomorrow thousands of independents are taking part with 14,000 candidates competing for 440 seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. In Basra, more than 1,200 candidates are competing for just 35 seats, partly a result of security gains that have given candidates the confidence to put themselves forward.

Arab Sunni groups, most of which boycotted the 2005 polls, are involved this time and analysts say the combination of independents and Sunni could go some way to addressing imbalances created four years ago and produce more representative administrations.

In Anbar and Diyala, provinces that were hotbeds of the insurgency, the Awakening Councils, which brought together former Sunni militants to fight against al-Qaeda and who became critical to the US success in stabilising the provinces, will gauge their political strength for the first time.

The provincial vote will act as a bellwether for the main Shia Islamist parties that have dominated the government for the past four years, including the Dawa party of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the strongest of the Shia ruling parties, before elections for the national parliament scheduled for this year.

Many eyes will be on the Sadrist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric. His group and the Mahdi Army militia, which is nominally loyal to Mr Sadr, was viewed by many as one of the big threats to Iraq's stability.

The Sadrists have suffered setbacks but are thought to still enjoy strong support among the urban poor. They are not contesting the elections but have endorsed two "independent" lists, the success of which may offer some insight into the extent of influence they retain.

Ultimately, how the losers react could be just as critical as who wins.

Click here for the FT online

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