"High drama and low comedy" was how the former US ambassador Ryan Crocker described the 2010 Iraqi elections. It was an accurate description although he failed to mention the real reasons behind this failure: the US occupation and the destruction of the Iraqi state, allowing the unqualified people who cooperated with the occupation to rule Iraq, imposing a constitution which Iraqis did not have the chance to read, and dividing the country on ethnic and sectarian lines. Of course, all these problems were exacerbated by the Iraqi parties and politicians who have ruled the country since 2003: the Shia coalition that dominated the government followed a sectarian political line and marginalised the Sunni community.
The same features will define this April's elections. To expect them to be a turning point in Iraq's history, ousting sectarian or corrupt politicians, is folly. All indications point to the return of the same faces and coalitions that have dominated the political scene since 2003. The few new faces, from some smaller parties and coalitions, who may manage to gain seats in the next parliament, will either be ineffective or soon come under the influence of the old, bigger coalitions, able to bestow privileges on them.
The same ruling coalitions look likely to return to the legislative, in slightly different proportions. The State of Law coalition headed by the current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, along with its National Allied Coalition (Shia), are likely to get most of the votes, especially in the densely Shia provinces. The Kurdish parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan region will come second, and the Sunni coalitions in the west and middle of Iraq third. As now, the National Allied Coalition will constitute the biggest bloc in parliament.
The only issue will be who they choose as prime minister: whether they will stick with al-Maliki or choose someone else from the same coalition. However, none of the candidates who could replace al-Maliki differ in their parochial-sectarian-marginalising attitudes.
On top of that, it seems that Iran, the most effective element in Iraq, still favours al-Maliki for a third term. This was probably what led Muqtada al-Sadr, the most influential religious leader in Iraq, who had been expected to challenge al-Maliki, to announce his withdrawal from politics. His sudden and unexpected decision will surely weaken his bloc. In 2010 al-Sadr had initially announced his opposition to al-Maliki, but later was persuaded by Iran to drop this opposition and support him -- which he did, though he later regretted it. It seems al-Sadr decided to quit because he thinks (not unjustifiably) that al-Maliki isn't the right person to rule Iraq, and does not want to be accused of supporting an ineffectual politician who has failed to combat sectarianism, end the marginalisation of the Sunni community, curb the huge corruption and get rid of the spreading terrorist organisations. Al-Sadr's decision has of course increased al-Maliki's bloc's chances of increasing its influence and presence in Iraqi politics.
Meanwhile, al-Maliki is already working hard and effectively to eliminate his rivals and critics. His policy is to alienate possible rivals by discrediting them through the courts, accusing them of involvement in criminal acts or corruption (even if they have not been sentenced) or of being former Baathists (through the de-Baathification committee, known as the High Commission for Justice and Accountability). It has also been rumoured that al-Maliki has been giving loyal members of the armed forces two electoral cards, and not distributing these cards properly in areas where he thinks his popularity is low.
These tactics of rigging elections and referenda have been used before. During the referendum on the permanent constitution, the government tampered with the results in order to prevent three provinces from rejecting it. There are indications that the US embassy, which was pressuring all the political coalition to approve the constitution in order to justify the US strategy of pulling out of Iraq, approved of this method by not objecting to it. When the results from Anbar and Salahuldin (Tikrit) provinces were negative, the government then tampered with the results from Ninevah (Mosul), claiming the no votes did not constitute the majority needed to reject the constitution. Another method was not to send ballot boxes to areas regarded as being against the constitution.
There is another indication that the April results will be similar to those in 2010. By mid-March the High Commission for the Elections (HCE), the supposed independent body responsible for conducting and observing the elections, had only distributed four million out of 21 million voting cards for eligible voters (18%). Although the HCE claims that distribution has since increased, all available figures show the percentage could only jump to 30-35%. Furthermore, it is believed that the vast majority of those whodid receive their cards are members or supporters of the parties already participating in the political process. More damning still is the collective decision by the HCE's members to resign, on account of government pressure. Later they were forced to withdraw their resignations, again due to the prime minister's interference and control over the HCE (which is directly attached to his office, not to the process).
Furthermore, due to the high level of corruption, most of the parties taking part in the political process, and their members, have accumulated huge fortunes which enable them to bribe voters with ease in a country where the majority live in poverty.
Despite all this, there are two real and serious threats to the coming elections. The first is the possibility of the two main Kurdish parties boycotting them because of their own dispute with the al-Maliki government. Judging by previous experiences though, the government will in the end give in to their demands, provided they support his candidature. If this problem is not solved the elections could be postponed and al-Maliki would remain in office for at least two more years. The second threat is of a serious blow to the prime minister's military campaign against terrorist organisations, especially in the western part of the country. In that case, the prime minister's chance of winning a third term would be seriously impaired; and that could lead to military intervention in politics, ending all hopes of elections.
To change any situation democratically, countries need vigilant and concerned citizens with a will for change. Iraq has neither. Many are still swayed by sectarian propaganda and are indifferent to elections because they feel they cannot change their situation. This may seem a harsh accusation -- and perhaps Iraqis are right to think as they do because, until now, there has been no real party or leading personality who could give them cause for hope. All the parties, coalitions and personalities are still the same as in 2003. Even so, they are forgetting one critical reality: They were the ones, through their negative attitudes and sectarian affiliations, who allowed the present politicians to come to power, and remain there.