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 Opinion Pieces
Multi-ethnic coalition the next test for Iraqi democracy

Published: Monday, 12 December 2005
Author: Josh Frydenberg & Mishkat al-Moumin
Publication: The Australian

The future of a country and the stability of a region are at stake with this week's election, say Joshua Frydenberg and Mishkat al-Moumin

THIS week's election is the most important moment in the brief history of the new Iraq. With a four-year term, the new government will bear the responsibility for dealing with the many security, economic and political challenges that lie ahead.

Remarkably, this is the third time in the space of a year that the voices of democracy will be heard on the streets of Baghdad. After elections in January to establish an interim government and a vote in October to ratify the new constitution, Thursday's election will be the greatest test yet for this emerging democracy.

Building a united, moderate and multi-ethnic coalition from the at times disparate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities will be a big challenge. With more than 300 political parties already registered, each community is seeking to promote its own agenda.

Some Shiites want to further entrench the role of religion in society; the Sunnis, after boycotting the January election, are looking to re-establish their political base; and the Kurds are endeavouring to strengthen their cultural and territorial autonomy within the context of the new democratic nation state.

The extent to which a newly-elected government is able to merge these competing demands and forge a united front, will be an important factor in the future stability and prosperity of Iraq.

The election outcome is hard to predict. The Shiite Prime Minister and head of the religious al-Dawa party, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is expected to poll well. His alliance with the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Aziz al-Hakim, enhances his appeal among Shiites, who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population. However, at the January election, al-Jaafari and al-Hakim were publicly endorsed by Iraq's leading Shia figure, grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

This time, al-Sistani is unlikely to exert his proven and profound influence to back any specific candidate. This could open the door to other contenders. While the Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi may attract some support, the more significant player could be former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Campaigning on a platform of economic and social development, he has successfully forged a broad coalition of 17 moderate political parties with representation from each of the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.

As a Shiite, Allawi has reached out across ethnic lines, building sound relationships with the Kurdish President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, and Sunni leaders, including Adnan Pachachi, the head of the Democratic Independence Party.

Whoever is chosen by the people to form the new government will face a number of security, economic and political challenges in the period ahead. The first priority must be to strengthen Iraq's military and police capability. With many of Iraq's 211,000 newly trained forces already in the field, progress is being made. The untold success of this program has been the integration of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish personnel into a single Iraqi fighting force. United in their efforts to defeat the terrorist enemy, the creation of a multi-ethnic Iraqi army makes it more difficult for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his lieutenants to drive a wedge through society along sectarian lines.

As President George W. Bush recently pointed out, Iraqis are assuming ever greater responsibility for their own security with local forces now having primary control over the main cities of Najaf and Mosul. This is a trend that will continue over time.

Under sustained pressure on the domestic front, the US has already indicated it will wind down its troop commitment next year. But too much is at stake to beat a hasty withdrawal. Stability in the Middle East as well as US credibility, in which we all have a vested interest, are dependent on success in Iraq.

Second, the new government must continue to strengthen the economic conditions in the country and ensure the efficient distribution of essential services to the people. After years of neglect under Saddam, hundreds of new schools and many new hospitals and universities have been opened.

Oil production will continue to rise and thousands of new businesses have been registered. Iraq has a new currency and a stock market has been created. The significance of these achievements cannot be underestimated, as they are providing the Iraqi people with the tangible benefits that flow from life without Saddam.

Third, the new government must maintain a commitment to fundamental human rights and the promotion of a civil society. Recent revelations of a secret detention centre in the Ministry of Interior and allegations of officially sanctioned torture is of concern. In addition to the human tragedy, such stories have the capacity to exacerbate the divisions and tensions that already exist within society.

The new government's compliance with the new Iraqi constitution will be critical. Enshrining a wide range of civil and political rights, including religious freedoms and equality before the law, the constitution provides an important roadmap for the way ahead. Iraqi democracy has the potential to be a beacon for similar movements in the region. Recent stirrings in Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories are encouraging and maybe a window to the onset of greater freedoms across the Middle East. But should Iraqi democracy fail, then the wider movement may also flounder.

Not many people would have predicted just a few years ago that Saddam would be now facing justice for his crimes. So too, it is hoped that this week's vote and the election of a united, multi-ethnic and moderate government will be another stepping stone in building a vibrant, tolerant and democratic Iraq.

Josh Frydenberg, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister John Howard, is attending the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Mishkat al-Moumin is a former cabinet minister in the Iraqi Interim Government of Ayad Allawi. Last year she survived an assassination attempt in which four of her bodyguards were killed.

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