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.

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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.