Iraq election reprieve fails to hide sectarian tensions

Despite the decision to allow barred candidates to run, sectarian tensions continue to dominate Iraq

Last month, 511 candidates were barred from participating in the 7 March Iraqi elections, ostensibly due to their links with Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. While this applied to a mix of Sunni, Shia and secular candidates, the lack of transparency and accountability ensured that the step was widely regarded as a measure to marginalise the Sunni community.

Despite a history of co-operation and peaceful coexistence, sectarian identities were politicised in Iraq by Saddam's extensive use of patronage networks. The security vacuum and insecurities that have plagued the country post-occupation have exacerbated these tensions. So has the use of proxies by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The boycott by Sunni parties undermined the legitimacy of the 2005 election and a similar scenario was feared again this year. The decision by the Independent High Electoral Commission to allow the barred candidates to run, although not to hold office until they are cleared of Ba'athist links, should restore some credibility to the process.

The decision appears to have been pushed through in part by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who visited Baghdad late last month. As such, the move has been dismissed by some as an attempt to ensure "smooth sailing" until the US withdrawal.

 

Suicide pilgrim

Meanwhile, there are visible signs that the problems are far more ingrained in Iraqi society.

Since Monday there have been five reported bombings in Baghdad, Karbala and Hilla. Wednesday's attacks in Karbala came two days after a woman disguised as a Shia pilgrim struck a procession in north Baghdad, killing at least 38 people.

The targets are Shias travelling to Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning the anniversary of Imam Hussein's death. The pilgrimage was banned under Saddam and has routinely attracted violence since it started again in 2004.

Although the violence is undermining Prime Minister al-Maliki's election platform of improving security for Iraqis, it is arguably doing more to halt attempts at reconciling existing sectarian tensions. While the perpetrators clearly have an interest in preventing the latter, it is surely in the interests of Iraqis and regional security.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.