Iraqis are voting for Parliament Wednesday for the first time since American soldiers withdrew more than two years ago. Without their support, and amid intense violence, the poll will test Iraq’s fragile democracy to its limits.
The election is for the 328-seat Parliament and offers more than 9,000 candidates on party lists. It will probably end up with no party winning a majority and lead to weeks or months of coalition haggling to form a new government.
It comes at a time of ongoing battles between Sunni Muslim extremists and Iraqi security forces. Al-Qaida-linked groups have overtaken the city of Fallujah. That conflict and numerous bombings against civilian areas have claimed at least 2,600 lives this year, according to the United Nations.
In the middle of this turmoil and by far the most prominent political figure is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He heads an alliance of mostly Shiite Muslim parties called State of Law. It will likely get a substantial chunk of the votes: Maliki has served two four-year terms and has a solid support base.
He is unpopular with some, especially Sunnis, who believe he’s abusing his power and using his security forces to eliminate his opponents. But Maliki is backed by many of his fellow Shiites.
But not all. In local elections last year, State of Law didn’t do as well as expected. This invigorated a clutch of other parties vying for the Shiite vote, concentrated in southern Iraq.
That’s emblematic of the vote around the country. There are three main divisions among the public — Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds — and generally voters stick within their own faction. But within each group there is also competition for votes.
For example, Maliki’s party could face challenges from smaller Shiite blocks, especially in areas where people are frustrated with a lack of economic opportunity and corruption.
A group led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — whose Mahdi army once fought U.S. troops — and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq are competing for Shiite votes. In the large city of Basra, an oil exporting hub, and in Baghdad, they formed alliances strong enough to sideline State of Law in the local council elections.
If they could replicate this in the national elections they could jeopardize Maliki’s chances of being prime minister again. (Sadr abruptly resigned from politics in February; this has weakened, though not crippled, his party).
With his fellow Shiites jostling to marginalize him, Maliki’s party is reaching out to Sunni political blocs for coalition-building.
Trouble is, the Sunnis are divided, too. And a lot of them will find it hard to ally with Maliki after the prime minister launched a series of devastating military operations to expel militants from Sunni parts of Iraq — along the way detaining and killing many Sunni residents.
Also, under Maliki, several Sunni leaders have been disqualified from the election or slapped with lawsuits.
Still, there are some Sunnis who might be willing to build a coalition with Maliki if he looks strong.
The pre-eminent Sunni politician is probably Osama al-Nujeifi, who has served as speaker of Parliament for the past few years. He leads a party called United for Reform.
And there’s Saleh al-Mutlaq, who’s currently a deputy prime minister and leads another small Sunni bloc.
But amid the violence and threat of retaliation, many Sunnis may be too afraid to vote. That could weaken the Sunni political presence in Parliament, and their role in coalition-building.
Politicians from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region also have parties running. If they can resolve bitter internal differences, they might serve as a powerful king-making bloc in choosing the next prime minister. That would be leverage for seeking more federal money or independence for their region.
The vote is being watched by two powerful outsiders: the U.S. and Iran. Maliki visited Washington a few months ago and has received American help — in the form of Hellfire missiles and other equipment — in fighting the Sunni militants.
Maliki has an ambivalent relationship with Iran, dating back to time he spent in exile there. But his State of Law alliance may enjoy some Iranian support because the alliance includes some smaller Shiite parties favored by Iran.
One issue is Iraq’s involvement with Syria. Iran uses Iraqi airspace as a route for sending supplies to allies in the Syrian government fighting rebels there. The U.S., which opposes the Syrian regime, has asked Iraq to block those shipments.
However Iraq votes, one telling sign for the country will be voter turnout. In the last parliamentary polls, in 2010, 62 percent of people cast ballots.
Since then, rights groups and many Iraqis say this Maliki government has failed key democratic tests: The country is corrupt and unsafe, with serious flaws in the freedom of the judiciary and media. Many Iraqis are deeply disillusioned with the democratic process.