This weekend, Iraqis once again took to the polls peacefully. While it was not the first election since the invasion, it was an election of firsts: the first vote for a truly sovereign Iraq; the first time Iraqi Security Forces were fully in charge of security at all polling places; the first opportunity for candidates to campaign in the open, walking door to door and holding public events; and the first election in which every major sectarian group participated.
Iraq has held three previous elections, but none of them were truly national, like the one the world witnessed this past Saturday. While turnout may have been down, all segments of the population participated–including Sunnis–in what will go down as Iraq’s first pan-sectarian vote, and the purest form of democracy the modern Arab world has seen. It was a vote which, for the first time, included the old benefactors of Saddam Hussein’s regime–men so averse to such a process six years ago that their participation is nothing short of monumental.
In January 2005, Iraqis voted for provincial representatives and an interim national assembly that was charged with drafting the Iraqi constitution. I was in Iraq to witness the remaining two elections–an October 2005 referendum on the national constitution, and parliamentary elections that took place in December 2005.
At each of these successive votes, we saw less and less violence at polling places, and more and more Iraqis participate. But none of these elections occurred in a truly secure country. Iraqis–mostly Shia and Kurds–went to the polls in an act of courageous defiance to a strong insurgency, which may help explain the larger turnout in previous elections.
The elections I witnessed in 2005 were important steps towards forging a political framework for the country, but did not in and of themselves create the conditions for reconciliation. A national constitution and a newly elected parliament holed up in the Green Zone didn’t deter a violent and radical insurgency; nor did they increase confidence in the government at the neighborhood level.
As we learned in 2007 and 2008, it wasn’t until security was established at the neighborhood level that true political reconciliation began to occur. Sectarian killings faded away, local councils sprung up, and young Iraqis took to securing their neighborhoods. On my visit back to Samarra, Iraq, this past August, numerous locals told me: “Al-Qaeda will never come back here!” Military security was the true grandfather of political progress and reconciliation.
However, on that very same trip–which occurred deep in the heart of the Sunni triangle–I once again witnessed the lingering scars of political exclusion. While the streets were safe, shops opening, and the city council holding session, the reconstruction money and coordination needed from higher levels of the Iraqi government were not yet reaching Samarra.
As with all things in Iraq, there are surely multiple reasons for this–ineffectual leadership, corruption, and outdated administrative mechanisms. However, the overarching problem for Samarra–and most Sunni towns–was that its people had largely boycotted previous elections, believing them to be shams of the Shia government.
The result? Samarra–the largest city in Salah ad Din province–has no voting representation in the provincial council. Because the Sunnis in Samarra did not vote in January 2005 during the provincial elections, they have nobody representing their needs at the provincial and federal level, and hence receive a disproportionately small amount of resources.