Iraqis Ignore Violence and Vote. Now the Hard Part

In any other country, an outbreak of election-day violence leaving some 38 people dead would have been a major blow to democracy. But in Iraq it is a sign of resilience — or else a measure of how many other problems the country faces — that Iraqis appear to have shrugged off attempts by extremists to derail the election with a concerted series of mortar, rocket and bomb attacks in several cities Sunday morning. The country’s third parliamentary election since the American-led invasion in 2003 continued throughout the day, and foreign election observers noted a slight increase in turnout as the day progressed and as attacks subsided.

With thousands of polling places using paper ballots, and a ban on vehicle travel and other security measures for election day itself, the exact figures on voter turnout, as well as the results themselves, won’t be known for days. But most Iraqis have been expecting a long, turbulent postelection period, for which Sunday’s attacks are merely background noise.

The election could be crucial in determining whether Iraq continues on a path toward stability, independence and democracy, or plunges back into the kind of vicious civil warfare from which it has just emerged. Previous American-sponsored elections produced a series of sectarian and ethnic leaders who proved unable to resolve fundamental issues regarding the future of the Iraqi state — from the sharing of oil revenue, to the boundaries of disputed territories and the balance of power between the central government and the regions. And when gridlock in Baghdad was at its worst, the country went up in flames.

Now it remains to be seen if Iraq’s leaders have learned from their mistakes. Though all the major parties, realizing that it is impossible to govern without reaching beyond their own base, formed multisectarian and multiethnic coalitions for election, their commitment to compromise and unity will be tested in the weeks ahead.

The final composition of the government will determine the future direction of the Iraqi state — whether it becomes more centralized in the hands of the Baghdad government, or whether power is devolved to the regions, especially the Shi’ite-dominated south and the Kurdish north. Those pushing centralization include Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite dominated State of Law coalition, and the ideologically similar, but more Sunni and more secular, Iraqiya coalition, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Pushing for decentralization are the ruling parties of the Kurdistan Regional Government — the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq — and an alliance of Shi’te parties led by Ammar al-Hakim, Ahmed Chalabi and Moqtada al-Sadr among others — which critics claim is bent on creating a semiautonomous Shi’ite enclave in oil-rich southern Iraq.

Either direction could destabilize the country. Devolution could spark a civil war between Arabs and Kurds, while further centralization in a country with a history of totalitarianism could put Iraq on a slippery slope to a new kind of dictatorship.

More worrisome is the possibility that a postelection Iraq will take no direction at all. None of the five leading political blocs is likely to emerge from the election with enough seats in parliament to form a government on its own. That means Iraqis will most likely have to endure weeks without a government, as their politicians engage in wheeling and dealing in Iraq’s equivalent of the political backroom.

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