Iraq Elections

Conflict along Ethnic and Religious Lines

The allegations of voter fraud in the Iraqi elections have not been disproved; yet the major parties have agreed to go along with the outcome now presented. In this interview Gareth Stansfield, Iraq expert, talks about the troubled waters of Iraqi politics

Electoral list, Iraq (photo: AP)
The media in Iraq is controlled by the hegemonic political actor in the particular regions, says Gareth Stansfield. "Each group has its own media putlets."

​​The Iraqi elections have allegedly been manipulated; now, however, various parties have agreed to accept the outcome. What is true about the allegations, and is it not likely that strife will again flare at one point unless Iraqis can be sure of a legitimate poll?

Gareth Stansfield: It is very difficult to ascertain the truth of the allegations that the elections have been manipulated. It is certainly possible. There is so much at stake in Iraq for each of the main political players that the temptation to try and manipulate the results is considerable.

Still, I think that an un-manipulated result would show the same overall pattern as Iraqis are now voting according to their communal identity. As such, results tend to reflect the population breakdown apparent in society. In a perverse way, if all components of the Iraqi political system are attempting to manipulate the results within their own regions, then the result remains representative of Iraq. Strange all the same.

However, accusations of manipulation could easily undermine any Iraqi government formed through the results. As such, strife could flare again at any time (indeed, it has not gone away) and particularly regarding issues of sensitivity (such as the Sunni demands to have an equal voice in Baghdad, or the issue of Kirkuk).

Do the majority of Iraqis view the elections as a tool of genuine political participation?

Stansfield: It depends on which Iraqis you are talking about. The majority of the Shi'a and Kurds certainly do. I would still say that most Sunnis do not. Elections by their nature empower majorities, and that means the Shi'a, with the Kurds dominating the north. For the Sunnis, this is a total reversal of the political system which has dominated Iraq for several centuries. It is simply not accepted that they can be anything other than the ruling group.

Do Iraqis have access to unbiased media reporting in general and about the outcome of the elections in particular?

Stansfield: Again, the media in Iraq is controlled by the hegemonic political actor in the particular regions. So, the Shi'a parties have their own media outlets, the Kurds theirs, and the Sunnis theirs. There are also Turkmen and Assyrian media offices all promoting their own agendas.

Is the outcome of the elections, as it is now presented, an indicator that the elections were not mainly about a political programme but rather about ethnic and religious affiliation? After all, Allawis "mixed" party did not get many votes.

Stansfield: Totally. As I have said, political life in Iraq is now about supporting a particular identity, which is almost always ethnically or religiously defined.

This is a reaction to the long history of dictatorship which focused heavily on eradicating any form of political mobilizing force other than Ba'athism and Arab nationalism, and the mismanagement of Iraq following Saddam's removal, which effectively empowered ethnic and sectarian actors in governing local communities. Once power has been devolved in such a way, it is very difficult to bring it back together.

Will increasing political participation of Sunnis have an effect on the Sunni insurgency?

Stansfield: It depends upon whether the Sunnis have, and are seen to have, a real and influential voice in the new Iraqi government. However, this is looking unlikely. If the political participation of Sunnis is not deemed to be sufficient, then this would result in further increased support to the insurgents.

How about the political culture in Iraq? Will MPs be able to pragmatically discuss subject matters or are ethnic and religious tensions likely to boycott political processes, for instance in forming the new government?

Stansfield: This is a serious problem. There is little evidence that Iraq's political leaders are capable of finding answers to questions that require serious amounts of compromise, including the role of religion in the state, the rights of women, the structure of the state (federal or unitary), the position of US forces in Iraq, the control of oil revenues, the list is very long. Any one of these problems, and particularly state structure, the role of Islam, the control of resources and the position of the US, could rent Iraq apart.

In how far can the EU contribute to stabilizing the situation in Iraq?

Stansfield: The EU can positively contribute in several ways, and most notably in attempting to bring Iraq's parties together into negotiations outside Iraq. There is a dangerous lack of interaction particularly between the leaderships of the Shi'a and Sunni (Hakim and Kubeisi only have the occasional telephone conversation), and the Kurds are viewed with suspicion due to their own continued special circumstances.

The US too is not viewed as an unbiased actor in this regard. However, the EU has a problem in so far as the US is viewed by Iraqis as being by far the most important player, with Europe not being in the same league. This perception would have to be redressed.

Interview conducted by Larissa Bender, Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2006

Gareth Stansfield is appointed expert of Chatham House, Britain's leading think tank. The political and economic development of Iraq is one of his fields of expertise. In 2004, together with Liam Anderson, he published "The Future of Iraq" (Pagrave Macmillan).

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