Iraq, it would seem, rewards the pessimist. There have been signs that the country was lurching towards an eventual recovery. Violence is down overall, sectarian conflict seems increasingly unlikely, and, most encouragingly, the seeds of democracy appear to have taken root. But the country still manages to move backwards almost as often as it makes progress. The ban on 500 Iraqi politicians, most of them Sunni, is a massive blow to democracy in Iraq and could have a detrimental impact on the parliamentary elections in March.
It is difficult to see anything but political motivations in this decision. Though the Justice and Integrity commission of the Iraqi parliament claims that the ban is for past support of the Baath party, the manner in which the ban was applied leaves those claims in doubt. The most prominent MP to be banned, Saleh al Mutlaq, was once a member of the Baath party and has a chequered background. But Mr al Mutlaq has worked to unify Iraq even while the country was embroiled in the worst of its sectarian violence. He was a nationalist when the majority of politicians were sectarian. Now most politicians are adopting nationalist platforms, because that is what the people want. Leading the charge is the prime minister Nouri al Maliki, of whom Mr al Mutlaq is a deep critic. It is hard not to see the hand of Mr al Maliki in this decision. At the very least, he has little cause to intervene as it is his coalition that stands to gain the most from Mr al Mutlaq's political demise.
The scope of the ban is further cause for concern. The decision to ban all members of a party because the head of that party had Baathist ties fails to pass even the most cursory test of fair play. Fourteen political parties may be banned as a result of this decision, making the holding of a free and fair election that much more difficult. The commission is a relic of the Coalition Provisional Authority and its powers under the constitution are poorly defined and too broad. Its opinions are not binding, but that does not mean that it is without authority. The body charged with the regulation of candidates, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), decided to uphold the ban because it "fell under the law of the committee of justice and integrity".
If this is true, then the law ought to be amended, but it appears that no one is sure what the law actually is. In response to a query from the IHEC on the banning of political parties, the supreme court responded that it was outside its jurisdiction and up to the commission to decide. That is, the commission has whatever powers the commission decides it will have. Iraq needs, and Iraqis want to vote for, politicians like Mr al Mutlaq. Short-sighted efforts to sideline them will only stoke sectarian tensions. Unfortunately, the Iraqi people appear more prepared for democracy than their leaders.