Every election in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been hailed by outsiders as a crucial turning point. More often than not this has been wishful thinking. Nevertheless, this weekend's national poll (with early voting beginning yesterday) is certainly of genuine importance for Iraq's future. The pace of the withdrawal of American troops from the country, scheduled to begin this summer, will depend on the stability of the government which emerges from this election.
The degree to which the government can organise a peaceful vote will be a test in itself. Insurgents have pledged to disrupt the election and yesterday two polling stations in Baghdad were attacked by suicide bombers. But as for the actual result, there seems little doubt that the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia coalition will see off the challenge from the secular political grouping led by his predecessor, Iyad Allawi.
This is largely due to Mr Maliki's ruthless use of the powers of state patronage to build up his own power base. Half of the Iraqi population are dependent on the state food ration and the government is the main provider of jobs. This is leverage that the Prime Minister has not been slow to exploit.
Nor has this been the limit of Mr Maliki's willingness to tip the scales in his favour. Prominent opponents of the major Shia political groupings have been excluded from this weekend's poll on the confected pretext that they are trying to resurrect Baathism. This has been accompanied by a noisy media campaign, encouraged by the government, against those supposedly linked to the former regime.
Yet, in one sense, such skulduggery is immaterial. The reality is that any elected government in Baghdad is going to be dominated by the Shia and Kurds, who together make up 80 per cent of the population. The Sunni simply do not have the numbers to govern in their own right and the non-sectarian coalitions lack the power base to challenge the main religious party blocs.
Iraq's sectarian political landscape does not, though, mean an inexorable return to conflict. A major resurgence of sectarian violence seems unlikely, notwithstanding the continued presence of al-Qa'ida in the country. Sunnis seem to have little appetite for a return to civil war after their crushing losses in 2006-07. And Mr Maliki faced down the Shia Mehdi Army in Basra and Baghdad two years ago. If the next administration can keep a lid on these sectarian tensions, Barack Obama and his generals should be able to proceed with the planned troop drawdown.
Yet the American departure will not be able to disguise Iraq's chronic problems. The country's electricity and sanitation infrastructure remains broken. There is still a chronic shortage of doctors in the country. Thousands of health workers who fled during the sectarian violence have not returned. Meanwhile, ransom-motivated kidnappings are on the rise and untapped oil reserves in Kirkuk remain a potential flashpoint for relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish authority in the north.
The best hope for whoever forms the next government in Baghdad is to hold the political ring, to implement incremental improvements in the quality of state services and to pray that the international oil price does not collapse. What Iraq needs is less a turning point than a future without nasty surprises.Reuse content