By Ray Fleming

IRAQI people go to the polls today in what is perhaps the most important election held anywhere in the Middle East for a long time. The outcome of this parliamentary election will determine whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain has had at least one positive result -- the establishment of a functioning democracy in a region where very few, if any, exist. The first parliamentary election in Iraq in 2005 was a hurried affair managed by the Americans to prove that some progress was being made. Tomorrow will show whether rigid sectarian and ethnic divisions have broken down to any extent so that a genuine national spirit can grow. The probability, however, is that voting will be strictly according to Shia, Sunni and Kurdish loyalties with Shias in an overall majority. The best hope, therefore, will be for better representation of minorities in a Shia-led government than has been seen in the past.

One of the best judges of Iraq politics I know wrote recently that although the next Iraqi government will be “as corrupt, dysfunctional and authoritarian as the present one” there is no power vacuum and therefore internal wars of any kind are unlikely. The semblance of democracy is as important for the Americans as for the Iraqis because the total withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by the end of next year depends on a reasonable and visible degree of stability in the country.