Can Iraq’s fragile democracy survive this test?

On Sunday Iraqis will go to the polls with the hope of freely electing a new government that will improve their lives and make their country safer. The conduct and results of these elections will have huge ramifications, not just for Iraq but for the whole Middle East and indeed the entire world.

As Ryan Crocker, the former US Ambassador to Iraq, pointed out, it is the second election that matters most in a fledgeling democracy such as Iraq: so it must be free and fair, and it must result in a peaceful transfer of power to the chosen representatives of the voters. To squander this opportunity would be a real tragedy for Iraq, not to mention an insult to the memory of the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have lost their lives during Iraq’s painful journey away from dictatorship. It would also be an insult to those coalition troops who died to help Iraq to build a democracy.

A functioning government must be able to do more than one thing at once. For Iraq that means delivering basic services, providing security and creating an environment for economic growth and job creation. A democratic government must also respect the will of the people and not use its powers to subvert democracy and avoid accountability.

Regrettably, Baghdad’s current Government is undermining Iraq’s young and fragile democracy in two ways: by abusing its authority to undermine free and fair elections, while desperately trying to camouflage its incompetence in the three critical areas of basic services, security and job creation.

The Shia Islamist parties in power and their foreign patrons recently hijacked the political process by overturning court decisions in order to bar hundreds of secular and Sunni opposition candidates — despite protests from the US, the EU, the UN and the Arab League.

The incumbent Government is also shamelessly and illegally using the security forces and public money to suppress dissent and bolster its own party at the polls: in the past few days, government forces have been dropping pamphlets attacking me personally and the Iraqiya Coalition, which I am heading. Arrests and harassment of opposition parties are on the increase.

None of this can mask the poor performance and dismal progress of the past five years. Unemployment is at a record high and basic services in Iraq today remain woefully inadequate. The lack of clean water or a reliable supply electricity (less than half of Iraqis have more than 12 hours of electricity a day) — to name a couple of bread-and-butter issues — has negative consequences that go beyond the humanitarian impact: the Government’s inability to deliver even the most basic services erodes public confidence not only in the Government itself, but also in the political process that put it in power.

The faith of Iraqis in the institutions of government is now extremely low, and many question the capability of democracy to bring about real improvements. If these elections do not result in a more effective administration, and soon, there is a clear danger that Iraqis may turn their backs on the entire democratic experiment.

On the security front, the current Government has failed to take advantage of the period of stability brought about by the US troop surge and the emergence of the Awakening Councils, the Sunni tribes who co-operated with the US Army against al-Qaeda. The Government should have capitalised on this to achieve the necessary political reconciliation and build effective institutions — including professional military and security forces free from political cronyism and religious sectarianism — that can secure Iraq’s borders and keep its citizens free from terror at home.

We see the results today, with an intolerable rise in indiscriminate bombings and sectarian killings (more than 400 civilians were killed or wounded last month alone), including a worrying recent targeting of Iraq’s Christian minority. It is vital, both for the region and the world, that the forces of moderation and tolerance triumph over extremism and terror.

Even the rule of law has been eroded by the Government’s politicisation of the de-Baathification process. The ironically named Accountability and Justice Commission, which was supposed to ensure that only those associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime were banned from public life, has misused its authority to remove candidates from the ballot and to stifle the opposition. More than 500 candidates in Sunday’s elections with no ties to Saddam have been banned from standing; the courts overturned this decision until the Prime Minister summoned the head of the Iraqi judiciary and the ban was reimposed.

Iraq’s high unemployment and lack of opportunities feed into the instability, which the region can ill afford. Oil production struggles to maintain pre-invasion levels, and the economy and public finances are still hopelessly dependent on this single sector. Iraq is in desperate need of a concrete plan to kickstart the economy and create real jobs. The people of Iraq are crying out for a non-sectarian and effective government.

This election represents a critical moment — for Iraq but also for America, Britain and the coalition that liberated the country from Saddam. The Iraqi people want and deserve a future where real, tangible progress is being made to better their lives, and where they and their children and grandchildren can look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

And it is imperative that the Western nations understand that this is a moment when all their efforts and sacrifices can result in a new kind of democratic dynamic in the Middle East; the alternative is that Iraq lapses back into a sectarian political quagmire that will place renewed pressure on the US to maintain a military involvement that nobody wants.

The US, Britain and their allies can help to salvage Iraq’s nascent democracy by sending a strong message that only free, fair and inclusive elections are acceptable. There must be extra scrutiny of the election to ensure that the will of the people is served. Democracy only works if the public has faith in the system and those that occupy high office. On Sunday Iraqis have an opportunity to reaffirm the power of democracy. It must not be missed.

Dr Ayad Allawi, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, 2004-05, and leader of the Iraqiya List.