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Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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