IRAQ'S parliament last week unanimously approved a law paving the
way for municipal elections. The main factions agreed to put off the
dispute over the status of Kirkuk, Iraq's fifth-largest city, and allow
voting in 14 of the nation's 18 provinces.
Left out of the process for now are the three provinces of the
Kurdish autonomous region plus oil-rich Kirkuk, where a power-sharing
scheme between the majority Kurds and other communities (Arabs, both
Shiite and Sunni, and Turkmen) remains to be negotiated.
Immediately after the law passed, the government announced that
elections for city and provincial councils would be held on Jan. 31.
The law now goes before the country's three-man presidency council,
headed by President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd.
Holding municipal elections is crucial to Iraq's new and still fragile democracy.
To start with, the elections will allow the new leadership that has
emerged locally to establish its popular legitimacy. In many provinces,
especially the four where Sunni Arabs form a majority, this new
generation is determined to challenge the central leadership, which
consists mostly of former exiles.
The returning exiles built their popular base top-down. The new
generation of leaders has operated in the opposite direction, building
support at the grass-roots level before claiming a share of power.
The biggest group likely to benefit from the coming elections is
the "Awakening Movement," consisting mostly of former Arab Sunni
insurgents who turned against al Qaeda and helped clear terrorists out
of Anbar and Salahuddin provinces.
The elections will also provide an opportunity for a massive
reshuffling in the Shiite community, which accounts for some 60 percent
of the population. Some parties with a large share of power in the
central government may lose the provincial bases that they've secured
thanks to patronage and other corrupt practices.
The Shiite bloc that won the two previous general elections is now
divided - offering voters a wider choice, especially because many
candidates with local support will stand as independents.
The elections are also important because they'll create new organs
of local government directly responsible to the electorate and thus
accountable on a day-to-day basis. Resources the central government now
allocates to local authorities are controlled by appointed officials,
often promoting sectarian and factional interests.
The creation of elected local government organs paves the way for
the full implementation of the decentralization law enacted last year.
This will allow the provinces a large measure of autonomy (economic,
cultural and social), reflecting Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity.
Sources in Baghdad say local elections in the four remaining
provinces will be held at the same time as the parliamentary elections,
likely to be fixed for next spring.
Some Western observers had warned that the Kirkuk issue could
unravel Iraq's new democracy. That hasn't happened, as Iraqi political
leaders have demonstrated their readiness to learn the art of
compromise and the virtue of patience.
One reason they appear determined to complete the electoral cycle
by next April is their doubts about US policies in the next
administration. The Iraqi leaders hope that holding successful local
government and parliamentary elections will put them in a stronger
position even if they have to deal with a President Barack Obama, who
opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
"We want the American people to know that Iraqis understand and
like democracy," says an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"The toppling of Saddam Hussein gave us a chance to try something
different, i.e. democracy, and our people liked it."