for National Geographic magazine
and National Geographic News
For the first time in nearly 50 years, Iraqis will go to the polls on Sunday to participate in a multiparty election.
As a follow-up to the National Geographic magazine story "Reaching for Power: The Shiites in Iraq," National Geographic interviewed two experts on Iraq. Their comments on the upcoming elections and what's in store for that volatile nation provide unique and sometimes conflicting insights.
Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyzes the state of democracy around the world and the efforts of the United States and other countries to promote democracy. Based in Washington, D.C., he specializes in political transformations in the Middle East, particularly the reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iraqi-born Louay Bahry serves as an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, D.C. Prior to his position at MEI, Bahry taught political science at the University of Baghdad, University of Qatar, University of Tennessee, and Ohio State University.
What is the atmosphere in Iraq right now? Are people excited about voting or cynical or scared?
Marina Ottoway: I think probably more than anything else they are worried. It is important to keep in mind I am answering from here in the U.S. and not there. It's also important to keep in mind that a lot of people in the Shia areas really want to vote. But there is also a tremendous amount of concern about what is going to happen on Sunday, for very obvious reasons, because the potential for violence is very high. (For a history and photo gallery of the Shiites, see "The Sights & Sounds of the Shiites of Iraq.")
Louay Bahry: They are divided. Some are excited about voting and participating. Other people don't want to participate, because they don't like the idea and don't want to participate out of conviction, or fear, or intimidation. So it depends on where you are, what city, what area, and who you are talking to.
How effective and legitimate will the elections be, especially if large numbers of Sunnis boycott or people are unable to vote due to security concerns?
MO: The best that the elections can do in Iraq at this point is to set up the National Assembly and allow the process of the negotiations on the constitution to start. One of the problems in Iraq is that the various groups that make up the population have not had the chance to meet, to discuss, to decide what they want for the future of the countrywhether they can have a joint future, whether they can stay together in one country.
So far Iraq has been controlled by the United States, essentially, and there has been no political process going on, and what the elections are going to do is unblock the possibility of this political process. It's not an election about democracy. It's an election about starting a dialogue among those various groups in the country.
LB: Well, the Shia are anywhere between 55 to 60 percent of the population. So if you say that 50 percent of them will vote, and the Kurds, who are 17 to 20 percent of the population, will vote, that's 67 to 70 percent of the population. And if you have some Turkmen and Sunnis vote, then you have anywhere between 67 to 72 percent of the population votinga majority.
Besides writing a new constitution, what steps do the new leaders have to take to put Iraq's government in order?