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Middle East

Iraq's voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tomorrow is election day for the next Iraqi parliament. The parties already in power hold the clear advantage with money and, in some cases, links to militia groups. Still, Iraqis hope the vote may send a message about widespread corruption and lack of reliable electricity, water and medical care. And, of course, the outcome could have repercussions for the U.S. military presence there. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from Baghdad. Ruth, thanks for being with us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: And help us understand what's at stake for Iraqis in this election.

SHERLOCK: So they're voting in parliamentary elections, and the 329 candidates who win seats will go on to select the next prime minister. These elections were triggered early by demonstrations that began two years ago and went on for months. That's because Iraqis are exasperated with a government that's failing to provide even basic health care or other public services. And, you know, that's despite this being an oil-rich country.

SIMON: Iraq's had regular elections since the U.S. invasion, and that would ordinarily seem like progress, but the government struggled with corruption and failing to control violent militia groups. What seems to be the cause of some of these failures?

SHERLOCK: Well, Scott, one of the problems is the fundamental structure of government here. It's a sectarian system that the U.S. helped to put in place after the 2003 invasion. It's meant as a way to help different religious sects share power. So, for example, the prime minister is always Shia. The president is Kurdish. But it produces a lot of problems for actual governance. Lahib Higel is an analyst for the International Crisis Group here, and she says the system ends up with every group looking out for itself.

LAHIB HIGEL: The reason why we don't have money actually going into state funds and being allocated to the public good is because these parties need to diverge much of these funds to sustain these patronage networks and ensure that they remain loyal to them in addition to, of course, a lot of it simply evaporating in corruption.

SHERLOCK: So demonstrators have been hoping to change all this.

SIMON: And how do they view the elections now?

SHERLOCK: Well, look. Many of the people who participate in the demonstrations - and I should say those demonstrations were really dangerous. Hundreds of people were killed by security forces and militias. So they risked a lot to get these elections. But now many people are calling for a boycott. Ali Hadid (ph) is one of the organizers of the original demonstrations, and he tells me he thinks the powerful parties will have this election rigged.

ALI HADID: This election - they will cheat. They will lose their money. They will lose corrupt money, of course, and weapons. There is no clean election in Iraq. That's why we don't believe it.

SHERLOCK: He says he doesn't consider this election legitimate because, ultimately, it won't change the underlying problems. The powerful parties are still the ones to hold all the levers and are expected to win the most seats.

SIMON: What will the U.S. be looking for in the outcome of this election?

SHERLOCK: One key thing the U.S. will look out for is how well political parties that are allied with Iran do in these elections. They're demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. The U.S. actually has plans to keep some troops there, about 2,500, but just for training and intelligence gathering and some air support. If Iranian-backed groups win a lot of seats, that could cause a problem for this objective. The U.S. might actually instead be looking to Muqtada al-Sadr. He's a Shia cleric who actually fought the U.S. during the invasion. But he softened that stance since. And Western governments see him as being a possible counterweight to Iran because he is expected to do well here. We'll know the results of the election soon, but the wrangling over the forming of the government after that could take months.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.