It was late Friday afternoon when it hit me. I’d just hopped out of the shower and was anxious to start celebrating the arrival of the weekend, Super Bowl Sunday, and Saturday’s provincial elections in Iraq. I’m a Middle East geek. Deal with it. As I was pulling on my jeans, the denim stuck to my still-damp legs and suspended me in an awkward, one-legged pose that bore a striking resemblance to a lawn flamingo. Gravity emerged victorious and sent me crashing earthward like a newborn giraffe, tweaking my knee on the way down. I was massaging my bruised patella when the sickening dejavu arrived. I flew back to January 2006 when my beloved Cincinnati Bengals made it to their first playoff game in 15 years. Confidence was soaring, the WhoDey pride was back, and the possibilities were endless….but in the back of every fan’s mind was the ominous knowledge that they were still the rooting for the heartbreak-ridden Bengals. Then ace quarterback Carson Palmer blew out his knee on his second snap. Bitter tears, the gnashing of teeth, and crushed dreams ensued. As I awaited the commencement of this year’s Iraqi provincial elections I was wracked by the same looming, sickening intuition that a hopeful opportunity was about to hit the fan.
Just like the Bengals and the playoffs, Iraq’s recent history with provincial elections has been brief and violent. January 2005 marked the first post-war provincial elections and served as a magnet for hostility. Suicide bombers claimed scores of innocent victims at the polls, mortar and rocket fire rained down on unsuspecting voters, and the constant snap of automatic rifle fire provided the acoustic backdrop as millions of Iraqi citizens cast their ballots. More than 260 insurgent attacks across Iraq constituted a single-day record at the time, ultimately leaving 45 dead and nearly 100 wounded. Nevertheless, the January 2005 provincial elections were scored as a success for the people of Iraq and iconic images of new voters fearlessly displaying their ink-stained thumbs gave the world reason to celebrate. The message from Iraqi voters was one of democratic perseverance throughout the intense violence.
Saturday’s elections could not have been more different. Some are calling it one of the most peaceful days they can remember since the United States led the coalition invasion back in 2003, and this January saw the least amount of Iraqi deaths since the war’s outset – down 42 percent since December alone. American soldiers took a back seat to the newly trained Iraqi security forces in efforts to make the voting process safe for the citizenry, and by most accounts the Iraqis performed this task excellently. 2005’s feverish quest by Iraqis to vote despite insurgent violence was replaced by a more unhurried, maybe even languid attitude toward the elections. Iraqi children even exploited Baghdad’s driving ban to set up impromptu soccer games in the empty streets. And though voter turnout actually decreased slightly during this series of elections, the environment in which they occurred was exponentially safer.
Besides the obvious security improvements, what went right and wrong during the Iraqi provincial elections? First, the bad news. Voter turnout in Iraq fell 5 percent since the 2005 provincial elections which begs the question as to whether this new relaxed attitude may actually be veiling growing voter apathy. It’s important to remember that this round of voting was for provincial elections in which voters select leaders to represent their interests on local councils. After the euphoria of the 2005 election subsided, skepticism emerged amongst the Iraqi citizenry about the effectiveness of their local governments, and some voters grew disillusioned. These lingering sentiments could be reflected by the drop in turnout this year. Some voters also found it difficult to find their candidates of choice on their extensive ballots and strict security measures discouraged some Iraqis from making it to the polls at all.
But for all the shortcomings these elections have faced, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by what Iraq got right. One of the biggest knocks on the 2005 provincial elections was the Sunni boycott that resulted in questions of the vote’s legitimacy. This year, certain provinces that reported a meager 14 percent Sunni turnout in ’05 boasted increases of up to 60 percent this time around. Iraqi voters were also able to vote for individual candidates for the first time instead of selecting a broad party list, which bolsters the emergence of more moderate and secular candidates in a place often wrought with religious extremism. This year’s tickets featured some 14,400 hopefuls running for a mere 440 local council positions with women making significant gains as candidates.
Let me be clear when I say that Iraq is still a dangerous, fragile country that’s precariously close to degenerating back into the violence of the 2005 elections. But it is absolutely impossible to not recognize the growth. These elections served as both a dry run for the national parliamentary elections later this year and also as litmus test for Iraq’s prospects for long-term democratic stability.
Now it is up to the newly elected local leaders to implement the necessary changes required to give Iraqis confidence in their council governments through infrastructure initiatives, municipal projects, and local stability. These promising elections only serve as the starting point for long-term execution.
In the end, I approached Saturday’s elections like any Bengals fan would – full of unbridled hope, yet grimly certain that I would witness it all go straight to hell. And then it didn’t. I’ve never been happier being wrong.