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Iraq’s Provincial Elections: Another D-Day Approaching

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

16 June 2008

Monday 30 June 2008 could be one of those fateful dates in Iraqi politics that will remain mostly unnoticed by the outside world.

30 June is the new deadline set by Iraq’s electoral commission for forming coalitions for this autumn’s provincial elections. The deadline for registering political parties expired on 31 May; with some 500 entities having registered the main question today is whether any of these parties are capable of amalgamating into larger alliances that could mount a challenge to the established elites represented by the core components of the Maliki government. In the previous local elections in January 2005, it was mainly those elites – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the two biggest Kurdish parties – that excelled in the art of coalition building prior to the elections.

A look at the list of registered parties soon reveals the importance of coalitions. It is true that there has been an outpouring of nationalist sentiment in Iraq over the past year, often framed as opposition to the Maliki government and certainly as criticism against the ISCI–Kurdish axis which forms its parliamentary basis. In one way, the anti-sectarianism and anti-separatism expressed by this opposition is inspiring and could give ground for optimism. Its spirit is certainly reflected in the list of registered parties for the next provincial elections, with an abundance of names emphasising Iraqi unity: “The One Iraqi People”; “The Bloc of Iraq’s Territorial and Popular Unity”; “The Iraq First Association”; “I Am an Iraqi Independent”. There is even a list dedicated to the memory of the slain police commander of Babel, Qays al-Mamuri, a staunch Iraqi nationalist who sacrificed his life by simultaneously challenging the militias of ISCI and the Sadrist movement. As on earlier occasions, south of Baghdad the only significant departure by smaller parties from the nationalist trend is regionalist rather than sectarian: “The Association of the Sons of the South”, “The Southern Region List”, “The Association of Southern Elites”, “The Bloc of the Sons of the South”, as well as the new party of Basra secularist Wail Abd al-Latif (Hizb al-Dawla). Most of these advocates of a special federal status for the “far south” (Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, in combination or as separate governorates) are explicit in their opposition to ISCI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s ideas of a much larger Shiite federal entity extending from Basra all the way to Baghdad.

And yet at the same time, the anti-sectarian current is also pathetic in its utter disorganisation. For much of 2008, there has been talk about secularists and Islamists coming together across sectarian lines, with visions of a grand alliance of Sadrists, Fadila, Shiite independents, Sunni Islamists, Wifaq, Hiwar, and breakaway elements from the Daawa party. So far, however, while impressive in its legislative achievements (they single-handedly pushed through the demand for local elections against the opposition of the Maliki government), the moves to institutionalise this new trend have been something of an anticlimax. The formation of Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s “National Reform Current” in late May is perhaps the most tangible result, but even this has not seemed to progress beyond the level of yet another Daawa breakaway faction. And as far as the list of parties registered for this autumn’s elections is concerned, there are few signs of coalescence towards greater unity. All these opposition parties (including Jaafari’s new front) are registered separately, whereas the Sadrists are conspicuous by their absence altogether (they may still opt to support individual candidates, or throw their weight behind one particular party – the pro-Sadrist Risaliyun have registered, for example.) The Chaldeans – Iraqi Christians who historically have been more focused on Iraqi nationalism than the minority of Christians who advocate a separate “Assyrian” identity – are represented by at least five different parties!

But are parties really important, when there is a possibility for an “open-list system” in the forthcoming elections? The answer is Yes, and the reason is the manoeuvring currently being undertaken by the Maliki government and its friends to minimise the possibility of challenges to its stranglehold on power. For some time, opposition parties have been pressing for a system in which the individual candidate, rather than the political parties, would become the focus of attention in the election campaign. However, the bigger parties have strenuously resisted this, marshalling an unholy list of arguments to avoid enhanced voter influence on the elections. Kurdish MPs have been particularly vocal during parliamentary debates, emphasising the alleged “immaturity” of the Iraqi electorate and hence the “impracticability” of letting Iraqi voters do anything other than following the ranking set by the party elites. As arguments against an open system they have also mentioned “illiteracy” among voters, as well as the difficulties of guaranteeing female quotas. ISCI similarly prefers the closed-list system, and also stands out for its demand that the use of religious symbols and campaigning in places of religious worship be allowed during the run-up to the elections – again with reference to “illiteracy”.

In the current draft of the elections law, these big parties have already achieved considerable results in strengthening their position. A hybrid system (voters can choose between a list and an individual candidate) has been adopted, but the counting rules are clearly biased towards bigger entities. Whereas the votes for a party list will count towards a cumulative total score which will enable the party to maximise its share of all remaining seats available in a given province, votes cast for an individual representative will apparently become “redundant” once a candidate has received enough votes to win a seat for him/herself. This would be a major disincentive against voting for an individual instead of a standard list, because there is a very real chance that the individual vote can be wasted – incidentally, a kind of voter behaviour against which an injunction by top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani was issued back in 2005. (A far more balanced arrangement would probably have been the “single transferable vote” system used for example in Ireland, where voters can rank a number of individual candidates in their preferred order.)

Also the “feminist” argument of the Kurds and ISCI seems somewhat disingenuous. After the female quota was introduced in Iraqi politics due to heavy American pressure in 2005, Iraq was propelled to a position where it currently ranks among the 30 countries in the world with the highest female parliamentary representation, way ahead of countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and indeed the United States itself. Earlier, in Iraq in the mid-1990s, female representation in parliament had been around 7%, slightly better than Greece: surely it was the methods by which these women were “elected”, rather than the gender issue as such, that constituted the fundamental problem of the old Iraq. All in all, if insistence on such a high female quota becomes an obstacle for the election of candidates with real popular support, the net result may well be that the praiseworthy ideal of higher female representation may stand to suffer as such, and that yet another imported and “artificial” feature is added to the new Iraqi model of government, thereby making it less durable.

Concurrently with these machinations inside the Iraqi parliament, the Maliki government also has cruder ways of wielding its power. Amara – the only Iraqi provincial capital run by a Sadrist administration – appears to be slated for an imminent large-scale security crackdown as Nuri al-Maliki increasingly seeks to portray himself as a strongman capable of ruling Iraq from the centre. It has been suggested that his failure to support ISCI in their demand for permission to use religious symbols in the election campaign is a deliberate attempt to carve out a niche for himself, distinct from ISCI. Similarly, the recent refusal by a majority of the provincial council in Dhi Qar to accept the new police chief appointed by the interior ministry seems to indicate continued friction between ISCI and Daawa even as they cooperate in sidelining common enemies like the Sadrists (the Daawa members in Dhi Qar boycotted the vote in protest). This all suggests that even as Maliki’s personal standing as a premier may be improving, his parliamentary base remains weak. For his project to work in the long run, either ISCI must abandon its sectarian federalism plans completely (there are some indications that this could be underway), or Maliki would eventually have to make friends with many of the forces that he is currently seeking to marginalise.

An additional source of weakness in the Iraqi government on which the Bush administration has placed its bets is the Iran factor. During the negotiations for a new security arrangement between the United States and Iraq, Western observers have generally assumed that Iranian influences are articulated through “subversive” forces like the Sadrists and the Lebanese Hizbollah only. This overlooks the possibility that Iran may be working with both hands, inside and outside the government at the same time, partly cooperating with the United States, partly putting pressure on it. Tehran has done this before, for example in April 2003, before Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, SCIRI’s leader, returned to Iraq. Hakim was then heavily criticised in the conservative Iranian media for intending to cooperate with the Americans in Iraq, and yet his return to Iraq went ahead – no doubt an expression that the ultimate aim of the Iranians was to have him there. Had Hakim’s cooperation with Washington been seen as truly inimical to Iranian interests, his return could have been prevented very easily. Similarly, today, Iran may well be using its influence inside the Iraqi government in the hope that some kind of “grand bargain” with the Americans suitable to its interests in Iraq can still be arrived at, while they simultaneously maintain several fallback options. At least, Tehran could be interested in the process for its own sake, pending the arrival of a new US administration in Washington.

Meanwhile, much of the American debate of these issues remains focused on the wrong indicators. Instead of probing the issue of Iranian influences inside the Maliki government, or discussing the prospect of a new cross-sectarian Iraqi nationalist alliance, many US analysts tend to emphasise the return of a couple of Sunni figureheads to the Maliki government as the ultimate yardstick for “success” in national reconciliation. But if the wider regional dimension is taken into account, there can be no doubt that both Iraqi and US national interests would be better served with an Iraqi government less focused on sectarian arithmetic but more in touch with popular feeling and nationalist ideals. That is also why a US strategy of turning a blind eye to highhandedness by Maliki in the run-up to the provincial elections is bound to fail in the long term, even if it may be convenient to have a calm façade in Iraq at the time of the US presidential elections. By now, the Americans should know that if they opt to play hardball with the Shiite factions in Iraq, they will be outperformed very easily by the Iranians. A far better solution would be simply to give Iraqi voters unrestrained possibilities for electing new faces to the provincial assemblies next autumn. The number of coalitions formed before the 30 June deadline will be an important sign of how that project is progressing.


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