On Sunday, Iraqis went to the polls to pick provincial leadership for the first time since 2005. Turnout hit 51%, which isn't great, but enough to avoid the problems of 2005, where mass Sunni boycotts left the Sunnis under-represented in provincial government (somehow, they did not anticipate this consequence) and fueled the civil war that followed.
The distribution of seats is incredibly weighted towards small provinces--every province starts with 25 seats, and gains only one seat for every 200,000 population over 500,000. But, because provincial government is not actually representative legislature, the effect is minimized. Because of al-Qaeda's presence in Mosul, as well as strong disagreements on how to deal with the Kurdish Autonomous Region within the federal government, elections within the 4 most Kurdish areas in Iraq have been delayed. The New York Times actually has a pretty good primer on this.
Final results won't be in for a few days, but initial results are both surprising and comforting for the United States--and appear to be a big blow to Iranian power in the region. Before this election, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) had a stronghold on the Iraqi south, and great influence as a major member of al-Maliki's governing coalition. One year ago, their militias ruled Basrah. As a conduit for Tehran, Iran's influence was strong. But militia fighting turned the Shiite South into a bloodbath, despite its relatively homogeneous nature, and Iraqis began to catch on.
Recent results show huge gains for al-Maliki's State of Law, throughout all of Iraq. It appears that State of Law will overtake SCIRI in almost every Shiite province, and place second or third in all others (including Sunni and Kurd provinces--at least those that are voting). This surge in momentum is surprising even to al-Maliki, whose popularity was crashing last year. But al-Maliki has stood up to the US (and negotiated hard for a pro-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement), stood up to Iran (and booted Iranian diplomats that interfered with Iraq's government), and stood up to various militias across the country (pressing hard against al-Sadr in Baghdad, against SCIRI militias in Basrah, and against al-Qaeda). He gained the loyalty of many Sunnis through the Sons of Iraq program, and of Iraqis all across the country for restoring Iraq to safety and functionality for the first time since the fall of Hussein.
The elections indicate a few trends that are likely to give al-Maliki a big win in December, when national parliamentary elections occur.
1) Nationalism. Most Iraqis really love their country, their democracy, their culture. For the day-to-day citizen, nationalism has grown with the relative decline of sectarianism, as could be seen during the Status of Forces debate--bitter sectarian enemies united briefly to make sure that the US would be on its way out in a timely manner. Now that Obama is planning an even faster withdrawal than Bush agreed to, the Iraqis are looking to use their newfound muscle to shove Iranians out. SCIRI lost big for not recognizing this trend, and al-Maliki won for gambling on it.
2) Anti-sectarianism. Sectarianism is seen as the biggest contributor to violence between 2003 and 2008 in Iraq. While many Iraqis clung to sectarianism during that time, it faded and then was rejected as a stable security environment began to prevail. Iraqis hope to avoid such a civil war from ever brimming up again, and they are voting in kind. SCIRI was punished for remaining relatively sectarian in its dealings, and State of Law won for its hard-fought attempts to bring unity and reconciliation among sectarian groups.
Should the Iraqi people continue to become more nationalist and less sectarian, State of Law will continue to win--unless SCIRI performs a drastic makeover in the next year. They have the opportunity to do so, and they are likely to try. Even al-Sadr is showing a cooperative stance with the unity government, which is a massive turnaround from the past.
Perhaps the most amazing part of all of this is that the elections occurred with barely a blip of violence. Elections always marked increases in bombings, shootings, mortar lobbings, etc. But this time, Iraq remained calm. Mr. Obama is indicating that Iraq has control over its security situation, and the US can pull out quickly. He may be right. This vote, should it be successfully implemented in the last 4 provinces, could signal the end of the War in Iraq, and the beginnings of a functional democracy. Ironically, while the last troops will come home under Obama, the Iraq war may be one that Bush managed to win entirely under his own administration.