Ready for prime time: Civil Society in Iraq

Iraqi Women Vote
Iraqi women after voting.

It’s true that this election in Iraq is significantly different from the last one in 2005; however, we should be aware that this is a classic reminder that elections do not equal democracy. As ballots are counted and results tallied, a growing civil society is not-so-quietly preparing to voice Iraqi needs and concerns on a multitude of issues.

Individuals in this election campaigned more on issues than on religious and ethnic platforms, and the leading Shia cleric consistently remained neutral. But as ballots are painstakingly being counted, plenty of political parties who are not in the lead are filing hundreds of complaints alleging voter intimidation, and ballot tampering. Although widespread fraud has not been reported after Iraq’s elections, the United Nations is investigating complaints which appear to be individual objections rather than systematic abuse. Be that as it may, the complaints, although isolated, suggest that the political jockeying is far from over.

While one of the solutions will be coalition-building, it’s yet to be seen exactly how long it will take and what coalitions will look like. It will be awhile until power-sharing is established, and even then it looks as though the government will be similar to what it is now. But while coalition-building will take some time, can Iraq wait that long? And more importantly, will anything else change for the better?

If Maliki’s party wins, the new government will need to make it a priority to prove that they can do better than before. Frequent bombings in the months leading up to the elections did much to undermine security structures in place, and the threat of violence continues as parliamentarians settle into their seats. Additionally, with Iraq still listed as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and a shaky infrastructure which limits electricity to sometimes only 2-3 hours in a day, investment and economic development in the country is slow-moving.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s civil society is growing with multiple NGOs and associations establishing themselves. With US troops set to leave in 2011 and security generally improving, focus is shifting more towards rebuilding Iraq internally and without the help of outside actors. Domestic civil society groups are advancing in the country as advocates on behalf of those affected by the government’s weakness in many areas, such as infrastructure.

Multiple Iraqi organizations are currently pushing for better access to clean water, healthcare and electricity. In the economic policy realm, associations and chambers of commerce in various provinces (including the Kurdish region) are campaigning for fewer obstructions for those who want to start businesses or invest. In all sectors and all realms of life in Iraq, NGOs are sprouting up and gaining legitimacy.

Although the elections were a significant step for Iraq, the development of its democracy is evident elsewhere – in the country’s burgeoning civil society – where lasting democracies really take root.