x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iraq vote should lead all parties to co-operate

Iraqis who bothered to vote in provincial elections sent a message to their politicians - it's time to get along together.

Regional elections in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces last month, the first voting since the departure of US troops in 2011, offer renewed hope that the political leadership in Baghdad will work to avoid the eruption of sectarian violence.

The results establish two important facts all sides need to ponder.

First, the bloc led by Nouri Al Maliki, the heavy-handed prime minister, came first despite many months of claims by his opponents that his popularity had significantly dwindled since he became the head of government in 2006, at the peak of Iraq's civil war.

Second, the low turnout - the government claimed it was 51 per cent, but reporters in some Baghdad districts spoke of 20 per cent - shows that Mr Al Maliki has a lot of work to do to sustain and build democratic legitimacy.

Despite waves of car bombings, the killing of 14 candidates and other incidents of violence before the April 20 election, those who did vote seem to have been able to do so with little difficulty, perhaps because security forces took charge of the process.

North of Baghdad, however, Sunni-dominated areas have been boiling for months; voting there had to be postponed in some provinces. The spectre of a full-blown sectarian war arose last month as clashes between security forces and local militias killed more than 200 people, including some of the government troops who stormed a peaceful protest camp in the northern town of Hawija.

Mr Al Maliki's success should send a signal to his detractors, although many of them have legitimate grievances. Sunnis rightly complain of draconian antiterror and de-Baathification laws that allow security forces to arrest them with impunity.

But other Iraqis, including Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr and many Kurds, have their own concerns, too, about Mr Al Maliki's insistent attempts to consolidate power and marginalise other forces.

A closer look at the results shows Mr Al Maliki's State of Law coalition performing more poorly than in the last provincial elections, and his own party doing worse within the coalition. Shia-led coalitions gained seats, meanwhile, and there was also a modest improvement for secular parties.

As the country prepares for parliamentary elections early next year, the balanced results of this round of voting should encourage all major political forces to find ways to work together.

The alternative, as Iraqis were reminded during this campaign, is a return to the large-scale violence that has done so much damage already.