January 31, 2009, marks another milestone in Iraq’s development as a democracy, as over 14 million Iraqis go to the polls to select new provincial councils across the country. Elections are becoming a firm fixture in the Iraqi political calendar. But there is something different: this time the process has been totally Iraqi-led. The legislation is Iraqi, it is the Iraqi Higher Election Commission that has been working hard for nearly 18 months to put in place the processes and mechanism to ensure the Elections are free and fair, and it is the Iraqi Security Forces that have put in place a comprehensive countrywide security plan for the elections. Democracy has taken root in Iraq and is flourishing. The ballot box is taking over from the gun as a way of winning arguments in Iraq.
We can see that in the way that groups who sat out previous elections – due to violence, intimidation and non-acceptance of the political process – are now putting forward their template for the future before Iraqi voters. Former insurgent groups are also showing that they accept the new political order by fielding candidates. In total over 14,400 candidates, representing nearly 420 political entities will compete for 440 seats. The electorate will be able to choose individual candidates, rather than just political groupings, and as an acknowledgment of the important role both minorities and women play in Iraq, the Election law provides quotas for both.
In Basra, where British Forces have been based since 2003, over 1,200 candidates will contest 35 seats. Rather than a city dominated by militia violence and intimidation Basra is a city in full election swing. The city’s streets and crossroads are alive with a myriad of posters of candidates strung across roads and covering lampposts and any available wall space. On any street corner you can typically see adverts for five or six different parties. Candidates are campaigning from morning till night, and like elections in the United Kingdom senior members of political parties have visited Basra to give local candidates their support. The elections are generating a lot of interest, excitement and optimism in Basra and expectations are for turnout of up to 70%. That is a reflection of the importance of the issues on which Iraqis are deliberating. As the political order looks increasingly settled and even stable, ordinary Iraqis are interested now in who will best be able to deliver improvements in prosperity and vital public services. Those who haven’t delivered so far can expect a harsh verdict, those who win will be held to high standards: democracy in a nutshell.
The elections come at a time of a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with Iraq. As announced by the Prime Minister on 18 December our combat troops are due to withdraw from Basra in the coming months and our focus will shift from a military one to a whole Iraq approach. Far from abandoning Iraq, our military drawdown, whilst reflecting the huge improvements in the security situation in Iraq and the capability of the Iraq Security Forces, only marks a change in the nature of our commitment, not its conclusion. The UK’s future relationship with Iraq will be one of partnership. It will take on new dimensions including areas such as economic, commercial, cultural and educational co-operation. It is a relationship of co-operation and friendship which is entering a new era and will last for many years to come.
The size of the task in Iraq should not be forgotten. Under Saddam a once flourishing country was brought to its knees. Two debilitating wars with its neighbours, numerous internal conflicts with repression of all communities, and threes decades of neglect left Iraq in tatters with a broken infrastructure and a society traumatised. The violent action of terrorists and militias after 2003 further ravaged the country and increased the suffering Iraqis had to live with. But Iraq and its security forces, supported by coalition troops, have faced up to the challenges presented by the terrorists and criminals who have tried to derail Iraq’s progress towards stability and security. And although this progress is fragile, levels of violence and criminality have dropped dramatically as the people of Iraq reject the terrorist ideology of Al Qaeda and the sectarian agenda of the militias and build a new future based on stability, prosperity and democratic values.
I strongly believe that a strong and stable Iraq, at peace with its neighbours and taking its rightful place in the international community remains extremely important to the strategic and national interests of many countries, and those in the Middle East in particular. The British Government has already supported the Iraqi Government and its people through the challenges they have faced since 2003 and we will continue to support the people and Government of Iraq as they face new challenges and transform from a dictatorship to a stable and prosperous democracy.
The future is in the hands of Iraqis as they step up to the ballot boxes on 31 January.