By Rajeev Agarwal*
Iraq votes for parliamentary elections on 12 May 2018, the fourth since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the second since the withdrawal of US forces in 2011, and the first after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. This will also be the first election since 2005 in which Nour Kamal Al-Maliki is not the serving Prime Minister but has in fact, formed a separate coalition within the ruling Dawa Party to mount a challenge against the incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
These elections also come at a very critical phase in Iraqi politics and the region at large, with rapidly developing scenarios threatening to have a long term impact. The failed attempt at Kurdish independence through a referendum in September 2017, defeat of the IS in Iraq in December 2017, an improving economy (mainly owing to rising prices of crude oil), corruption, a deeply fractured polity along sectarian lines, and need to reconstruct a nation destroyed by war with the IS are some of the big domestic factors likely to influence voters in the elections. Results of the past two elections could also be at the back of their minds as the previous elections failed to throw up a majority and resulted in a political deadlock that lasted for months. Thus, the last elections in June 2014 failed to deliver a clear verdict when Prime Minister Maliki’s ‘State of Law’ coalition won only 92 of the 328 seats. After months of negotiations and internal dissent, Maliki had to step down as caretaker Prime Minister in August 2014 and make way for Haider Al-Abadi. Finally, these elections are also a departure from the past elections in that the provincial elections, generally held before the Parliamentary elections, have been postponed to December 2018.
Parties, Alliances and Coalitions
Sectarianism remains the bedrock of electoral alliances and equations in Iraq. Parties and coalitions are drawn along three fundamental lines; Sunni, Shia and Kurd. However, what is a significant departure from the past are the intra-sectarian fault lines that have emerged within Shia and Sunni parties and the further vitiation of the political landscape.
Out of the total 329 seats in Parliament, 82 (25 per cent) are reserved for women and nine for minorities. The Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC) has approved a list of over 200 political parties and 43 coalitions for the forthcoming elections. Elections are based on a list system where votes are cast for electoral alliances rather than directly to candidates. Electoral alliances therefore assume great significance, both before and after the polls. Also, since 2005, the post of Prime Minister has been reserved for a Shia, while a Kurd is elected as President and a Sunni as Speaker of Parliament.
This time, Shia groups are split into a number of coalitions, a major departure from the first elections in 2005 when almost all Shia parties fought under a single electoral list. Former Prime Minister Maliki leads the ‘State of Law’ coalition while Prime Minister Abadi heads ‘Nasr al-Iraq (Victory of Iraq), both within the Dawa Party. Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr organization, has allied with Hashd, the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and is spearheading the Al-Fateh (Conqueror) bloc. Shiite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr has announced a joint list with the Iraqi Communist Party while Ammar al-Hakim, former leader of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, is now leading the National Wisdom Movement formed after the liberation of Mosul in July 2017.
As for the Sunnis and other groups, the prominent blocs are: ‘Al Karar’ headed by Jamal Karbuli and Vice President Osama Al-Nujaifi; and ‘Watanya’ led by Ayad Allawi, who is in alliance with former Deputy Prime Minister Salah Mutlak and Speaker of Parliament Salim Jabouri.
Kurdish parties make up for third major block in the electoral alliances. Major Kurdish parties are Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). There is also the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) led Salahaddin Bahaddin and Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM) led by Irfan Abdul-Aziz, who are jointly fighting the elections. Another major Kurdish list comes from The Change Movement (Gorran), the Islamic Group (Komal) and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) who have formed one joint list called ‘Homeland’. Gorran is the second largest party in the Kurdish region having 24 parliament seats and the third largest Kurdish bloc in Baghdad with eight seats.
Iraq is an important nation in the West Asian calculus due to its geographical location between Iran and the rest of the region. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the coming to power of successive Shia dominant governments in Iraq, Iran has been able to exert significance influence in Iraq. Developments in the recent past are, however, challenging Iran’s position in the region. The US threat to revoke the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia and Israel aligning closely (especially on issues relating to Iran) and the ongoing war in Syria are issues of serious concern and therefore Iran can ill afford a government in Iraq that is not aligned with its interests. This week’s elections in Iraq are therefore crucial in Iran’s regional calculations. With Iraq favourably aligned, Iran can exert better influence over the region extending well beyond Syria up to the Levant. While Maliki has always been favourably disposed towards Iran, Prime Minister Abadi, with his reconciliatory approach and warming of ties with Saudi Arabia, presents a concern for Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s ties with Iraq have been warming up over the past year. Prime Minister Abadi visited Saudi Arabia twice during the last year. He also took part in the first meeting of the Joint Saudi-Iraq Coordination Council in Riyadh in October 2017, which was established to boost cooperation. Earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel Al-Jubeir visited Baghdad in February 2017, the first such visit by a top Saudi leader since 1991. Saudi Arabia also resumed flights to Iraq in October 2017 after a gap of 27 years, and re-opened border crossings in Southern Iraq. It is also planning to open consulates in Basra and Nasaf shortly. Saudi Arabia would therefore be keen to see that its efforts in mending relations with Iraq do not get undone by the electoral results.
The US, Russia, Turkey and Israel are the other important players that are keenly following these elections. While Turkey and Russia have a broader congruence of interests in Iraq with the present dispensation and would like a similar one to continue after the elections, the US and Israel would like a government to emerge that aligns more closely to the western narrative and thus is ready to break free from the narrative of the past decade.
Prospects and Possibilities
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi starts as a favourite in these elections, coming on the back of defeating the IS, the failed Kurdish referendum and economic revival. He is also the most popular in opinion polls. Some polls also indicate a larger acceptance of Abadi among the Sunnis and Kurds too due to his focus on governance and reconciliation among people torn between sectarian identities. Abadi’s plan of fielding Kurdish candidates in Kurdish areas and inclusion of some Sunnis in his list may brighten his chances of greater electoral gains.
The other major Shia alliances of Maliki and Al-Sadr face major challenges. Maliki has seen an erosion in his support base over the years and especially since 2014 when he stepped aside in favour of Prime Minister Abadi. His contesting these elections on a separate coalition within the Dawa Party is likely to further split votes. People have not forgotten his rule from 2005 to 2014, which not only promoted sectarianism but was also marked by the increased persecution of Sunnis and Kurds and the failure to defeat the IS in Northern and Western Iraq.
Muqtada al-Sadr, who is leading another prominent Shia list and is fighting these elections on a joint list with the Iraqi Communist Party, also enjoys support from some Sunni leaders owing to his largely anti-Iran stance, thus giving his coalition a cross-sectarian outlook. In the 2014 elections, his combined list had won 34 seats. There is also talk of his coalition forming a post poll alliance with Prime Minister Abadi’s list, boosting the chances of Abadi retaining power.
Sunni Parties and coalitions have a tough task ahead due to the devastation caused by the war with the IS in their traditional strongholds. They had even demanded a delay in holding elections in order to allow internally displaced people to return home, an appeal that was turned down. Also, owing to their multiple lists, the lack of national level leadership and the fact that some Sunni leaders have crossed over and joined Prime Minister Abadi’s cross sectarian alliance, Sunni groups face major challenges. Among the lists, ‘Al Karar’ is hoping to do well in Mosul with Atheel Nujaifi, former Governor of Mosul, joining them. ‘Watanya’ led by Ayad Allawi, leading a broadly secular coalition, looks to attract a larger vote share among Sunni and even non-Sunni voters, but his reach is again restricted to Western Sunni dominated Iraq.
Kurdish parties, which make up the third major set of coalitions, are at their weakest in terms of popularity and acceptance after their failed attempt to gain support for independence through a referendum in September 2017. In a crackdown by the Iraqi government post the referendum, they lost oil rich Kirkuk. Also, international flights to the Kurdish capital Erbil were banned and restarted only in March 2018). The allocation in this year’s budget was cut from 17 to 12 per cent, giving these parties a severe jolt. The Kurdish political parties are therefore demoralised and discredited in the eyes of the Kurds. The only ray of hope is The Change Movement (Gorran), which is offering a fresh narrative to the Kurds, rejecting the divisive policies of leaders such as Barzani and Talabani.
In the present form, Prime Minister Abadi looks set to emerge as the largest block but the chances of his coalition getting the required majority are slim. Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr could emerge as strong contenders and potential king makers. For Abadi to emerge stronger than before, he would have to muster up seats in excess of 100. The Kurdish areas could tilt votes and boost his tally. However, a strong showing by the Maliki-led coalition could pose a stiff challenge and lead to a stalemated political situation as witnessed in earlier elections. Despite the ‘Gorran’ party offering a fresh narrative, there is very little hope in the Kurdish camp after the failed referendum. The Sunni blocks would hope to muster 50 to 60 seats from their traditional strongholds. Either way, it is unlikely that a non-Shia alliance could come to power.
As far as the future is concerned, while sectarian divisions and external influence are likely to continue as influencing factors, rising crude oil prices and economic revival along with a stable government will ultimately dictate whether or not Iraq can emerge from the shadows of the past and regain its prominence in the region.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author:
*Col Rajeev Agarwal is a former Research Fellow at IDSA and a research analyst on West Asia.
This article was published by IDSA