BAGHDAD: Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday in the fourth election to be held since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with the country at a critical economic and social crossroads as it emerges from the war on Daesh.
Security forces will guard polling stations across the country as voters select the members who will sit in a 329-member parliament, which in turn will form the next government.
The election is the most important since the US-led invasion in 2003, with its results defining the future of the country after one of the darkest periods in its recent bloody history, political analysts said.
Iraq is still dusting itself down from the costly and exhausting war that lasted almost four years. Daesh militants swamped northern and western regions, seizing almost a third of Iraqi territory in June 2014. Their defeat in the country was announced only in December.
Buoyed by their success in Syria, the extremists capitalized on the sectarian strife and administrative corruption that dominated the security establishment during the second term of the then Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
Haider Abadi, a fellow member of the Shiite Dawa party, outmaneuvered Al-Maliki after the last election in 2014 to take the top job. His term was defined by the extremists’ expulsion from the country.
The challenges awaiting the next government are large and critical. They include maintaining security and social cohesion in the divided nation — something that improved with the military success against Daesh.
The new government will also have to set the wheels rolling on reconstruction projects across the war-ravaged country and combat rampant corruption in all sections of the state.
“The post-election phase is critical and if it is not led properly by the next government, we will return to square one,” Sarmad Al-Biyaty, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News.
“If there is no strong government that knows how to deal with these files (maintaining the security and peace, construction and corruption), everything will collapse soon.”
Abadi, the current prime minister, took office in September 2014, inheriting a heavy legacy. He managed to create a balance between the biggest military figures in Iraq, Iran and the US, and convinced them to support the liberation of Iraqi territory by all possible means.
His diplomacy harnessed some of the most powerful weapons in the region: US air power and technical and intelligence support, and the Shiite militias funded and equipped by Tehran.
Abadi also spent most of his four-year term trying to repair some of the ruin left by his predecessor. He changed military commanders, dismissed corrupt officers, and restructured the security establishment to be more professional and effective.
These reforms have restored the security situation and significantly improved the government’s relations with citizens in the Sunni-dominated areas.
“These (security and peace) are the two greatest achievements to be taken into account,” Abdulwahid Touma, an Iraqi political analyst, told Arab News.
“Abadi’s calmness and methods helped him to get an international consensus around him. This relative stability in security and success in the liberation of Iraqi territory were the main results.
“If this unanimity does not continue, it is impossible to say how quickly the situation inside Iraq could collapse.”
But there are real concerns over how Abadi will perform in the election. While he is from the same Dawa party as Al-Maliki, the two men are now enemies and have formed separate coalitions, splitting the Dawa support.
The moderate improvement in Sunni-Shiite relations is embodied in several religiously mixed electoral lists, Mohammed Emad, a social science professor from Anbar University in Fallujah, told Arab News.
“This could collapse if a new sectarian government took place in Iraq,” he said.
“It could easily happen if Al-Maliki’s State of Law or the Al-Fattah Alliance get a chance to form the next government.”
Many Iraqis are fearful that the Al-Fattah Alliance, one of the biggest Shiite lists that includes most of the candidates representing Iran-backed factions, will nominate Hadi Al-Amiri, the Al-Fattah leader for prime minister.
Al-Amiri, is also commander of Badr Organization, the most prominent Shiite militia, and a victory for him would be a significant boost to Iran’s influence in the country.
Ahmed Al-Bashir, a prominent critic of Al-Maliki and presenter of the popular, satirical “Al-Bashir Show,” devoted his last episode to Al-Amiri.
“I did not expect that I would ever say this, Abu Esraa (Maliki). Please return,” he said sarcastically.
Years of violence have blighted Iraq’s economy, despite the vast oil reserves, leaving the country with high levels of poverty, unemployment, a dependence on oil and the absence of a dynamic private sector strategy.
The collapse of oil prices in 2014, accompanied by the failure of the Iraqi Army in the face of Daesh, meant oil revenues were directed to pay mobilized fighters in the campaign against the extremists. All infrastructure projects were put on hold
The Iraqi government has estimated the cost of reconstruction of areas affected by the war against Daesh at $100 billion.
Sunni areas suffered immense destruction in the past four years and around 2 million displaced people are still waiting to return to their homes, where electricity and drinking water have yet to be restored. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, while whole neighborhoods are still laced with mines and explosive devices.
In cooperation with the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, the Iraqi government held an international donor conference in Kuwait in February to attract corporate funding for multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects, mostly in oil and housing.
The government managed to secure only $30 billion, mostly through loans and insurance bonds.
“If the new government fails to combat the corruption and modify investment law, the international community will raise their hands and leave us alone,” Wathiq Al-Hashimi, an economic expert, told Arab News.
“Our economy is almost dead and needs to be reactivated by the private sector and more foreign companies investing in Iraq.
“This will not happen if we go back to the same atmosphere that emboldens the corrupt officials, who will cause the collapse of security and peace.”