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voters look for something else
are iraq’s sectarian politics over?

Daoud al-Ali
Recently it’s been suggested that Iraq’s era of sectarian politics is ending and voters will simply choose the party that serves them best, not the party that shares their religion. Is real democracy…
18.04.2013  |  Baghdad

As Iraq gears up for the provincial elections at the end of this week, it’s been suggested that the country’s biggest political forces with a religious background, should be focussing less on church and God and more on local government services and regional development.

After 2003, parties like the Islamic Supreme Council were among the most popular in the land. However after a relatively inefficient stint in power, they were sidelined and lost voters to less theocratic politicians. More recently sectarian-based parties – such as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-dominated ruling coalition – have been in power.

“In the past, campaigning for provincial elections did not focus on the system or on sensitive politics,” Baghdad activist for democratic and fair elections, Ali al-Dujaili, told NIQASH. “Instead candidates focused on getting voters mobilized by playing on their sectarian backgrounds and by putting emphasis on the conflicts between themselves and other political forces.”

The past ten years have been a negative experience, says local writer and analyst Mohammed Suleiman. “The aftermath of the US invasion led these forces towards power, which was something they were not ready or able to handle.”

Additionally Suleiman notes that the religious parties with a sectarian bent were often composed of individuals who may have had Islam or a sect in common but who also had a lot of intellectual differences. “So often, as a party, they were confused about their ideological positions. There would be a difference between what they did and what they said,” Suleiman explains.

A recent electorate meeting held in Karbala, a Shiite Muslim dominated city, to benefit Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose party is also dominated by Shiite Muslim interests and whose candidates often focus on that, was seen as another sign that sectarian politics no longer held the sway they used to. Only a handful of supporters turned up.

“Al-Maliki was really upset at the event’s organizers and he apparently even ordered that the head of his party there be fired, because he hadn’t been able to mobilise a very big crowd at the event,” a source told NIQASH.

Then again, maybe it was simply because during the campaigning for provincial elections, a lot of the parties had not put much emphasis on local issues and everyday problems. Iraq’s voters are disillusioned.

“The people who are managing the candidates’ campaigns and creating political discussion around them haven’t paid much attention to local development,” al-Dujaili says.

Political analysts also believe that the Iraqi people are more reluctant to vote for the big sectarian parties because it’s been clear that those who did make it into power, only used that power for their own benefit and to increase their own influence.

“The Islamic movements should be taking another tack, they should be showing that they understand their own society and the pressures under which people are living, as well as analysing the people’s opinions and attitudes,” Suleiman suggested. “The only solution is for these sectarian parties to integrate themselves better in social and civil society institutions. They need to reach out beyond their traditional allies in tribes and mosques.”

In the final reckoning though, it probably doesn’t matter that much that some of Iraq’s voters are no longer as interested in sectarian politics. It’s true that recent political conflicts have seen politicians crossing the house, and voting according to politics rather than sectarian allegiances. But it’s also true that the largest political forces in the country remain firmly rooted by their sectarian allegiances. Which is why it may be a little bit too early to call these elections the dawn of the end of an era.