The decision by Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission to ban more than 500 political candidates suspected of having "Ba'athist ties" from participating in upcoming parliamentary elections has raised serious concerns about the stability of Iraq's political process. The ban -- which was upheld last week by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) -- would prevent hundreds of candidates (out of more than 6,500) from a wide range of political parties from participating in the March 7 contest. The highly controversial decision has again thrown Iraq's domestic politics into crisis, and if left unresolved, it could impact Iraqi Sunnis' participation in the political process.
Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Iraq over the weekend, though he publicly insisted that the trip had been previously scheduled and was unrelated to the issue of the banned candidates, which he described as "a matter for Iraq's leaders" to resolve. However, Biden's influence has reportedly been successful in resolving past disputes, such as a spat last year over the relationship between the Kurdish regional government and central government in Baghdad, which have threatened to destabilize Iraq's political process.
In response to the controversy surrounding this decision, the Iraqi government has hastily set up a special appeals board for candidates who wish to contest the ban. However, since the procedures for these hearings have not been explained, it is still unclear how exactly the appeals process would work. In addition, there has been controversy surrounding the background and political affiliations of the seven judges selected to sit on the board.
There are several ways in which this complex drama might play out in the coming weeks:
Scenario 1: A quiet reversal
Iraqi politicians have a knack for flirting with disaster and then averting it just in the nick of time. As in the past, it is likely that determined American officials would again play a critical role in resolving this crisis behind closed doors. With U.S. troop withdrawals hanging in the balance, Biden's involvement is a telling sign of the high priority the Obama administration has placed on resolving this dispute.
As a face-saving measure, the government may ask Iraqi political parties to replace some of the more minor banned candidates with other, more acceptable names. Most could then be quietly dropped from the list and allowed to run. In fact, it is possible that this process has already begun -- Ali Al-Lami, the head of the Accountability and Justice Commission, recently announced that more than fifty names had already been removed from the list.
Scenario 2: "Iraqi solutions"
The Iraqi government appears determined to present this issue as purely an internal political matter, and have rejected any insinuation that U.S. pressure might lead to a compromise. Al-Lami insisted in the Washington Times that "there is no compromise. This is a matter of the Iraqi Constitution. It is not a political issue." American officials have also been seeking to avoid the appearance of interfering in Iraqi political decisions.
Many Iraqi political leaders have begun to publicly raise questions about the legitimacy of the Accountability and Justice Commission's decisions. Although the members of the commission were supposed to be confirmed by the parliament, such confirmation never occurred, and the members of Iraq's old De-Ba'athification Commission simply moved onto the new commission without proper parliamentary approval. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani recently sent a formal letter to Iraq's high court asking for a ruling on the commission's legitimacy. The improper appointment of the commission's members could be used as a legal pretext to nullify its decision on a technicality without addressing the sensitive, polarizing debate in Iraqi society about de-Ba'athification and reconciliation.
Another way the Iraqi government might resolve the crisis was hinted at by Al-Maliki in an interview last week on Lebanon's Al-Mustaqbal TV. Al-Maliki was asked about the fact that several prominent politicians' names were on the list of banned candidates -- including Abdul-Qader Al-Obeidi, who is Al-Maliki's own minister of defense. The prime minister acknowledged that Al-Obeidi's name was on the list, but explained that there may have been some "mistakes" or "misunderstandings" during the process, and offered that the commission may have confused the defense minister for a different man with the same name.
Scenario 3: Courting disaster
If no settlement is found, the banned candidates will still have the option to appeal. However, under the circumstances there is little chance that the appeals board would have time to hear all of the appeals before the March 7 vote. Those with pending appeals would be barred from participating in the election, even if acquitted later.
Even worse is the possibility that the election itself could be postponed. Iraqi ballots use numbers, not names, to identify candidates and lists, and there would not be enough time to remove the numbers of candidates who are banned and reprint the ballots. The ballots are supposed to be prepared two months in advance of election day to allow enough time to distribute them around the country, and that deadline has already passed. The current plan to deal with this problem is to put up posters in the polling stations identifying "eligible" candidate numbers. The confusion that would result might lead election officials to again call for a poll delay.
If a compromise is not found, Iraq's nascent democracy will face a serious threat: the possibility of Iraq's Sunni minority - disillusioned and frustrated with what they see as a campaign by the Shi'a-dominated government to take away their rights - would reject the political process and again turn to violence. Although Sunnis encouragingly participated in record numbers in last year's provincial elections, the decision to ban Al-Mutlaq and hundreds of other candidates feeds into Sunnis' lingering perception of political powerlessness and victimization by the Shi'ite-led government. Extremist Sunni media outlets in Iraq have reinforced this perception, eagerly characterizing the decision as an attack on Sunnis -- regardless of the fact that most of the banned candidates are reportedly Shi'a.
And the damage may have already been done. Many Iraqi Sunnis have taken this decision as proof that the ruling Shi'a majority cannot be trusted, and even if this particular decision is overturned or a compromise is reached, it would be seen as stemming largely from U.S. pressure. For many Sunnis, the government will have shown that it has no interest in allowing their voices to be heard, and reinforce their suspicion that it will continue to look for ways to exclude and marginalize them from the political process.