December 7, 2009 / 3:26 PM / 10 years ago

Q+A: Does a delay in the Iraqi election matter?

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq on Monday seemed likely to pick February 27 for its next election after overcoming political disagreements that had threatened to push the polls back further and derail U.S. plans to end combat operations in 2010.

The election date is later than a deadline mandated by the constitution.

WHAT WAS THE DEADLINE?

Parliament’s mandate expires on March 15, and therefore also that of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Under the constitution, new elections should be held at least 45 days before, so at the end of January.

An election in late January was always problematic due to an important Shi’ite Muslim religious festival that runs until mid-February.

Both Shi’ite and Sunni political parties opposed holding the election close to the festival of Arbain, when thousands of Shi’ites are expected to walk to the holy city of Kerbala from all over Iraq.

Shi’ite parties feared their supporters would be too busy marking Arbain to vote, while Sunni factions feared the festival would galvanize Shi’ite unity and persuade even the most recalcitrant Shi’ite voters to cast ballots.

HOW MIGHT THE DELAY BE A BAD THING?

Western diplomats were concerned a delay in holding the election could set a dangerous precedent in a country that until recently was accustomed to the heavy hand of a dictatorship.

If Iraq could blithely ignore a constitutional deadline now, while tens of thousands of U.S. troops are still in the country and Western hopes for the establishment of democratic principles are still riding high, what might its leaders do in the future?

A legal precedent for delaying elections could play into the hands of any would-be autocrat keen to avoid putting his popularity to an electoral test.

HOW MIGHT THE DELAY BE A GOOD THING?

Despite the moral hazard associated with breaching the constitution, many political analysts, diplomats and Iraqi officials believe having more time to prepare the election is likely to end up being a good thing.

The legitimacy of ballot results in nascent democracies is more important in the long-run than a deadline for holding them.

“If more time is needed to better plan the elections, then let’s take the time needed,” said Mishkat al-Moumin, a former Iraqi environment minister now at George Mason University. “I don’t think that having a result which is not representative of all social groups of the society is a healthy sign.”

Frictions between once-dominant Sunnis, majority Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds may lead again to war. With that risk hanging over Iraq, it was unwise to push for an on-time election at any cost.

In fact, holding an election when the situation remains so volatile might not be such a good idea at all, some analysts say.

The election’s aftermath will likely lead to an extended period while a new government is selected, halting progress on Iraq’s most pressing needs — security and reconstruction — said Rachel Schneller of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Elections should not be used as benchmarks of progress in fragile countries like Iraq, when they can just as easily signal periods of increased instability,” Schneller wrote in a recent article for the U.S.-based think-tank.

COULD THERE BE A POLITICAL VACUUM?

Parliament always had the option to appoint Maliki’s administration as a caretaker government for however long it takes for his successor to be picked, so fears of a political vacuum caused by an election delay may have been overblown.

With elections set to take place on February 27, before the expiry of parliament’s mandate, the chamber will have to dissolve itself in advance of the vote.

A political vacuum of greater consequence may result after the election. No political grouping is expected to win the outright majority needed to select the next prime minister, leading to a prolonged period of political wrangling that could be a catalyst for increased violence in Iraq.

WHAT DOES A CARETAKER GOVERNMENT DO?

A caretaker government is very limited in what it can do. It cannot pass new legislation or sign contracts. Its role is simply to keep the wheels of government turning.

Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Charles Dick

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