Iraq’s provincial elections are just a little over a month away. In Diyala and Ninewa in the northern section of the country, the ruling Shiite and Kurdish parties are trying to fend off a possible surge in voting by Sunnis, who largely boycotted the last regional elections in 2005. As part of this jockeying for position politicians in both provinces have called for a delay in the voting.
In early December 2008 the head of Diyala’s provincial council Ibrahim Hassan Baglan said that the elections should be postponed there. Baglan suggested the balloting be held four to six months later until security can be improved. He claimed that most of the candidates in the province had been threatened, and noted that the military operation that started in July in Diyala was still going on. According to the council chief there were also 26,000 displaced Shiite families from the province that needed to be resettled and compensated by the government before the voting could take place. Baglan said that until that happened, the voting would be unfair because many Sunnis would be able to vote who were Baathists, while the Shiite refugees could not. Baglan made similar statements back on December 5, mentioning that insurgents would also try to influence the election.
Shiites currently control the Diyala provincial council, but Baglan’s comments represent their fear that the Sunnis will play a larger role this time. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council holds 20 of the 41 council seats and the governorship. The Kurds hold seven seats, while the Sunnis have the remaining 14. There are now 46 individuals, parties and coalitions registered to run in the 2009 elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party is leading the Rule of Law Coalition, and has also established Tribal Support Councils in Diyala. The Kurds will have six parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Kurdistan Communist Party, the Drudging Kurdistan Party, and the Kurdistan Socialist Party. The Fadhila Party and the Iraqi National List of former Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi are also competing, while the Sadrists said they would run with independents, although it’s unknown whom these are. On the Sunni side the Iraqi Islamic Party is heading the Accordance And Reform Front. Three insurgent groups are running as the National Movement for Reform and Development. Various Sons of Iraq (SOI) are also appearing on the ballot. Many Sunnis boycotted the last provincial balloting in 2005, so they are hoping to make large gains this time. This is the reason why Baglan is calling for a delay and for refugees to be repatriated, so that the Shiites can hold onto power.
The Sunni parties also claim the government is working against them. Since the security operation in July hundreds of SOI and members of the Islamic Party have been arrested by the Army and police. One example was three SOI fighters who were picked up and then released the day before registration for the elections ended. They were hoping to run as candidates, but their detention made them ineligible. A member of Maliki’s office admitted that the arrests were probably political. This points to the Prime Minister’s increasing use of the security forces to achieve political ends.
Farther north in Ninewa the provincial council also wants to hold off on the election. On December 18, 19 of the 7 council members voted to postpone balloting. The Kurdistan Alliance (KA) made the proposal, and Kurds made all 19 of the pro votes, while the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Islamic Party voted against it. Like Baglan in Diyala, the KA said that there were 45,000 displaced families in Dohuk and Irbil that would not be able to vote if the balloting was held in January. The Kurds said that some had been refugees since 1973, and therefore had never registered to vote. The Election Commission responded the next day saying that only they had the power to change the date of the elections, and that they would take place on time no matter what the provincial council thought.
Like in Diyala, the Sunnis of Ninewa are hoping to have a strong showing after the 2005 boycott, which worries the Kurds. The Iraqi Islamic Party is heading the largest Sunni coalition in the province. Many Sunnis want the disputed city of Mosul to be an Arab one. The Kurds on the other hand have aspirations to annex several northern parts of the province. They have tried to downplay the newly organized Sunnis by calling many of them former Baathists.
The upcoming elections in Diyala and Ninewa could lead to some real change for who runs the provincial councils, while at the same time be just a switch from one major party to another. The Kurds and Shiites that run the two provinces are afraid that the Sunnis will be able to take control of the councils because they largely boycotted the 2005 vote. The call for displaced families to return is an attempt to change the demographics to ensure their continued rule. The Sons of Iraq are a new means to organize Sunnis, and many of them are working with the Islamic Party to run in the elections. If they do win then, it will mean a shift from the major Kurdish and Shiite parties to the main Sunni one. That will empower the Sunnis, while also maintaining the dominance of the large parties that currently control the provincial and national governments. This is one of the major ironies of the upcoming vote. Few independents and new parties are expected to gain any real power. Sunnis need their say, but the Islamic Party has shown little ability to govern. Until they do the results of the 2009 elections may be more symbolic than substantive for their followers.
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