During the Iraqi parliamentary elections on Sunday, this city’s main thoroughfares presented an almost overwhelming visual mosaic of politics. From the Karada neighborhood in the south to the Adhamiya district in the north, from poor Sadr City to rich Mansour, posters for the capital province’s 1,300 candidates hung from almost every tree and lamppost. Billboards crowded medians and roundabouts, promising Change, Justice, Unity, Jobs, Security and more.
Iraq’s underlying political currents are even more cacophonous: among the candidates are soccer stars, TV news anchors, judges and prostitutes. Still, it is the images of Iraq’s big political players that dominate the city’s landscape, especially Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his two predecessors in that post, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jaffari.
Winning the poster contest, of course, may not mean much in terms of the actual election. Messrs. Maliki, Allawi and Jaffari are each part of a complex cross-sectarian coalition. Each draws support from intricate and often contradictory sources. Given the convoluted “party list” system employed in the balloting, about the only thing certain is that nobody will win the election outright.
The Kurds, who are likely to win 15 percent of the vote, are open to forming an alliance with almost anyone. The provinces and smaller cities — with no big names running in them — will return an unpredictable grab bag of members of Parliament. Influential smaller candidates like Ahmed Chalabi, the one-time American favorite in Iraq, and Bayan Jabr, the finance minister, only add to the complexity.
We should know the polling results in a few days. Then, once the parliamentary seats are allocated, the game will start all over again: coalitions will crack, new alliances will form, and every seat in the 325-member Parliament will have its price as a handful of leaders compete to build majorities.
Five years ago, in January 2005, when a free Iraq had its first elections, it was not like this. The politics was simpler. The Sunnis boycotted, and the 2005 election posters — many of them remain, faded and tattered, on those spots of wall in Baghdad not blanketed by the current posters — referred mostly to a handful of big parties and emphasized the religious figures who forged them, as opposed to today’s myriad individual candidates.
The streets were different, too, in 2005. There were no traffic lights, and no solar panels on the lampposts. Drivers did not hurry to put on their seatbelts when slowing for a checkpoint. A police uniform was something to run from, not to, in a crisis. The Iraqi Army then had none of today’s organized, fit, self-confident air. The Americans, invisible today, seemed everywhere. A foreign visitor to Baghdad, always in fear at the time of the 2005 elections, now waves at the little boys selling Kleenex in the traffic jams. (However, the city was less thoroughly wrecked back then.)
As I revisited old haunts in Baghdad in recent days, it became clear to me that the increasing order on Iraq’s streets and the bewildering scramble in its politics are of a piece. In Sadr City, my old acquaintance Fattah al-Sheikh, who was elected to Parliament in 2005 as part of the bloc loyal to the extremist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, is now with the Baath-tinted, mostly Sunni party of Ayad Allawi. In Iraqi politics there is no more extreme conversion than that from Sadrist to Baathist.
“I’m a patriot above all else,” he told me. “And the Iranians have more or less kidnapped Moktada al-Sadr, so I stand against them.” Opportunistic as this claim may appear, Fattah’s stand, and his ability to survive in Sadr City as a vocally anti-Iranian candidate, exemplify the post-sectarian flexibility that is the hallmark of these elections.
Salaam Smeasim is another Iraqi I have known for years. She’s now 55, and a candidate for the largest Shiite opposition party, the Iraqi National Alliance. Salaam wears a veil, and her coalition, which includes many Sadrists, has relations with Iran.
“Would you agree with something like the Iranian system here in Iraq?” I asked her the day before the vote.
“Of course not,” she said, giving me the only angry look I have received in recent weeks while talking to Iraqis about politics. “As a Shiite I do feel something for Iran. But between Iran and America, only America is interested in freedom and human rights in Iraq. There is nowhere like America for freedom.”
Walking in the spring sunshine up and down the length of Abu Nuwas Park along the Tigris — a green and tempting place I had always admired from hotel rooms across the street but had never felt comfortable venturing into — I spoke to a man of about 65 who had a young grandson on his knee in the shade of a tree. “That is my son,” he said, pointing at a young man on a nearby bench. “One of his brothers I found beheaded in the street. The other is still missing.”
The grandfather would not say whether he was a Sunni or a Shiite. I asked how he viewed these elections in light of his personal calamities. “The rest of the Middle East is in a stage of political infancy, adolescence at best,” he answered. “Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, even Lebanon, they are all juvenile. But we are passing this stage of a politics about ‘who you are.’ This election in Iraq is about the politics of ‘what you want.’ And we want an end to sectarianism.”
I continued my tour of a city that seemed to be enjoying its election holiday. A Christian car-parts dealer outside the Syrian Catholic church in Karada, which is largely upper middle class, told me he would be voting for whoever would end the religious violence. (The deaths of nearly 40 people on Sunday attest to how difficult that task remains.) Nearby, the manager of Baghdad Polling Station No. 7 said voting was normal for Iraqis now — “This is our fifth time in five years,” he pointed out — and he would be voting for security, jobs and public works, not religion.
Marwa, a 24-year-old accounting student whom I spoke to on Sunday as she voted with her mother, noted that this was her fourth time going to the polls, and that while it was no longer exciting it was certainly her duty to her country.
At the Karkh Hospital I met Jassim, a 39-year-old Army sergeant whose lower leg had been blown off the day before (soldiers voted on Friday so they could provide security over the weekend). Recuperating in his bed, he showed me a purple-stained forefinger and said Iraq needed a leader to serve “the whole nation.”
Most Iraqi politicians have caught the anti-sectarian mood. That is why Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, had the confidence to break with the big coalition of his co-religionists that dominated in 2005 and run alongside several major Sunni tribal leaders. It is why once virulent Shiites like Fattah, the former Sadrist, now see Mr. Allawi’s party as a good bet. It is why the Iraqi National Alliance includes not only Salaam Smeasim, a pro-American Shiite in a veil, but also Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a Sunni cousin of Iraq’s last king and the chief claimant to the long-vacant throne.
With more Sunnis participating this time even as the old religious monoliths break down, Iraq’s coming government-formation phase will be slow and complex. During the weeks of horse-trading and grandstanding, the rhetoric will occasionally be vituperative, Iraqi leaders from all parties will be accused of unsavory relationships with foreign powers and the overall winning faction may well have an identity-based core.
Still, as that grandfather in Abu Nuwas Park explained to me, this messy process reflects the decline of sectarianism, a necessary and hopeful step in Iraq’s political maturation.
Bartle Breese Bull, a journalist in Iraq from 2004 to 2008 and a founder of an Iraq-based investment firm.