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.
Despite these lingering problems, the Samarra city council meeting I witnessed in August of 2008 was dominated by talk of preparations for last weekend’s provincial election. Even without funding to support the polling stations, or even a date on the calendar, there was bi-tribal support (if you will) for election preparation. Samarra was finally prepared to vote for representatives who would actually represent them–representatives who would be held accountable. And while voter turnout across the country was just above 51 percent, early reports indicate that most of the northern Sunni provinces, like Salah ad Din, had a higher turnout.
This election is more than just the fourth election to occur in Iraq; it is the purest form of democracy Iraq, or the Arab Middle East, has ever seen. For the first time, Iraqis of all sectarian backgrounds participated in an election they deem fair and vital to their communities. Finally, each according to their aggregate votes, each according to their interests.
And, in the coming months, the same will happen in the national Iraqi parliament–as the country will vote again to choose their national leaders. Again, Sunnis will participate and will gain even more representation in Baghdad.
These votes are enormous victories for democracy and reconciliation in Iraq and the greater Middle East, because unlike the 2005 elections, former Saddam elements–the Sunnis who ruled with an iron fist for decades–will now participate. In effect, Saddam’s Iraq has voted for the first time, with their votes counting no more and no less than those of their Shia and Kurd compatriots. The dictators are now the democrats, and the Butcher from Baghdad is surely rolling over in his grave.
This is the story of the new Iraq, and a reason for immense hope.