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Elections in Basra

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The major event in Basra in the last month has been the provincial elections. These were held on the 31st January; the second provincial elections held since Saddam was deposed in 2003 – with the last being in 2005. The election in Basra will determine the make up of the thirty five member provincial council which will govern Basra province for the next 4 years. In turn the council will elect the provincial council chairman and the governor.

As I wrote in my last blog Basra was covered in election posters when I last went downtown. Election campaigning also, I gather, carried on at a feverish pitch right up to polling day, including visits and rallies with all the major political figures, including Prime Minister Maliki. The big issues in Basra were who could deliver jobs and essential services: water, sewerage, electricity, etc.

Being based out of town, we’ve been largely insulated from the day to day campaigning, but the elections have been a key event for all of us here on the airbase - DFID, the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), the British Consulate, and the military - and a host of others.

The elections gave us a number of concerns including: would the Iraqi security forces (with our support) be able to ensure security in the province over the period? Might legitimate political campaigning give way to violence? Would the various parties accept the results - especially where they had lost power, and would there be a peaceful transition of power? Would the local election authorities be able to administer the elections fairly and effectively (elections are nothing if not major logistical exercises – in Basra there were 484 polling centres serving 1.4m registered voters, and the whole process from the printing of ballot papers through to their counting needs to take place securely and also transparently)? And would the local population be able to make sense of both a complex electoral system (allowing voters to express preferences over both party and candidate) and a complex political environment (there were 1272 candidates standing from amongst 81 political entities).  Despite all of these challenges, we were hopeful that we would see Basra hold free and fair elections, in a secure environment, leading to the election of a council seen as legitimate by the local population.

For DFID - and the PRT specifically - we have spent much of the last five years trying to build up a provincial government that is democratic, effective, accountable and free of corruption, particularly in the spending of Iraqi public money. It shouldn’t be forgotten that prior to 2003 Iraq had no system or tradition of elected local government and therefore we were attempting to build this tier of government from scratch.  This is long, hard and slow work and one that all the PRTs across Iraq have struggled with (and in a future blog I’ll write about our work and the challenges of working with the provincial government). In giving us a new provincial council to work with, the elections therefore presented both opportunities (a clean slate of new councillors, potentially with the political will to make a difference for the electorate) but also risks (might our earlier work get undone, will the new council be sympathetic to initiatives to improve the council’s functioning?).

So how did the elections go?

Well I’m pleased to say that they went better than any of us dared to hope. Security-wise we had almost no incidents in the province in the run up to the election nor afterwards once the results were declared. Sadly I wasn’t one of the staff who got to go into town to monitor the elections on the day - my boss however was and wrote ‘The atmosphere downtown yesterday was incredible. Children out on the streets everywhere, milling around, enjoying the sense of excitement, of something different happening. Women out and about – more women than men we reckoned – walking around with no sign of fear. Political posters plastered on every spare inch of wall space, colourful flags pinned to every free fence and lamp-post. I'd describe it as a carnival atmosphere. There was a sense of optimism you'd never have believed could be possible even a year ago.’

The turnout in Basra was around 50% which while not as high as expected or hoped is still very respectable by the standards of local elections in other countries, and still significantly higher than that for UK local elections. There have also been no major substantiated claims of electoral fraud or other mal-practice (consistent with our election monitors’ experience of visiting polling stations where they’d seen nothing to concern them). And people seemed to cope with both the electoral system and the range of candidates and parties.

And the results?

Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition gained 20 of the 35 seats. This was up from three seats before and seemingly reflects his strong standing nationally and his leadership of the Charge of the Knights operation which re-established security in Basra. Fadilah, who previously held the Governorship and had twelve seats on the council, gained one seat. A further positive was that the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sadrists took part for the first time, each gaining two seats. The shock was probably the result of the ISCI/Badr coalition who held 21 seats in the present council but were reduced to five seats this time around. A further trend was that the electorate appeared to have voted for individuals and not on religious or sectarian grounds and voted for candidates they believed would deliver better services for Basra.

So what happens next?

Well so far so good. The election bodes well for Basra with the process of democratic local elections seemingly increasingly embedded in local political culture and a good precedent established in the peaceful transfer of power from the old council to its successor.  We are also hopeful that with Maliki’s coalition having done so well in Basra that we’ll see better links established and greater support for Basra from the national government in Baghdad. However, there remain a number of steps to go before we see a fully functioning local government and also a number of challenges, including the appointment of a Governor and also the building of relationships between the new Council. One positive – and this is a further indication of how far the political climate has changed since April last year – is that we understand all the parties have indicated a willingness to work with us – which leaves us facing the coming months with a sense of opportunity to be grasped.

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