The pre-election period and announcement of the results
The pre-election period was characterised by diligent efforts on the part of both Iraqi Shi'a parties as well Iran to ensure a result that would be in their favour. Keeping in mind the Iranian pressure to unite the two Shi'a lists, the National Coalition (in its new form) and the State of Law could not overcome the major obstacle of their differences regarding the position of prime minister, a matter which Maliki's State of Law insisted must be agreed upon. The Sadri grouping and other powers in the coalition, on the other hand, refused to allow Maliki to return to the position of prime minister. It could be argued that Maliki entered the election with an extreme sense of self-confidence, despite his failure to incorporate into his coalition strong Sunni-Arab personalities who would have positively influenced his list.
On the other hand, the emergence of the Al-Iraqiya list and the agreement of its leadership on a secular-nationalist programme created heightened fears among the tribal-sectarian circles of both Shi'as and Sunnis, due to the sound integrity of the leaders on the Al-Iraqiya list as well as that party's response to the popular demand to rid Iraq of the tribal-sectarian nightmare. This position of the party posed a real danger to the position of the sectarianism groups and the balance of power that has shaped the Iraqi political landscape since the invasion in 2003.
There is no doubt that the "eradication" campaign (or the process of "de-Baathification") which preceded the elections, and during which unprecedented overt and covert pressure was used in the parliament and the judicial establishment, had purely political motives, and represented an agreement between the Iranian government and the two Shi'a lists with the support of members of the Sunni Tawafuq (Iraqi Accord Front). Despite the fact that this campaign resulted in many leading Al-Iraqiya members not being allowed to contest the election, it helped Al-Iraqiya improve its image in the eyes of the Iraqi Shi'a voters.
Contrary to most predictions, the Americans did not have an active role in the pre-election period this time around. Despite the Obama administration's attempt to postpone dealing with the "eradication" (de-Baathification) issue, American intervention had hardly any effect worth mentioning during the elections. It could be argued that the Obama administration no longer has any special interest in Iraq other than that the withdrawal of its troops proceeds according to schedule. The American international relations agenda has more urgent and important issues to deal with than Iraq, such as the Iranian nuclear file, U.S. relations with China and Russia, among other matters. The issue of "eradication" has proven that the Iranian role surpasses the American one in Iraq, and reinforces an opinion among some within the American administration that the defects in the balance of power in Iraq will only be solved if there is a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, whether by peaceful means or through warfare. This type of downgrading of the U.S.'s role in Iraq belies the claims that Washington supported and is behind the Al-Iraqiya list; it is, rather, certain that the Americans did not play any role, whatever their capacity may be, in creating the Iraqiya list or in supporting it.
The Results and Gains of the Political Powers
The election results have confirmed previous predictions of a revolt by a huge section of the Iraqi people against political sectarianism and sectarian parties, and against the federal state project that some role-players have been trying to promote. This is, of course, tied to the short-term rise of sectarianism which is not rooted in modern Iraqi political culture. However, it is clear that that this revolt occurred at different levels of intensity across the various sectors in Iraq. The Sunni Tawafuq (Iraqi Accord Front) lost heavily under the leadership of the Islamic Party, while the Supreme Shi'a Council was not capable of becoming a major force on the list of the National Coalition.
Furthermore, some of the major icons of the previous era, people who were known for their staunch sectarian positions such as Muwaffaq Arubai'ie, Hammam Mahmoudi, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, and Faisal Allami, received no more that a few hundred votes each, at a time when a candidate needed at least 30,000 votes to win a parliamentary seat. It is believed that Ahmad Chalabi lost the competition as well, but there might be certain arrangements being made to ensure that he gets one seat. Corresponding to the losses of the Supreme Shi'a Council has been the election victory for the Sadrist grouping, which is a partner of the Supreme Council in the National Coalition, the greater victory by the State of Law coalition led by the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and the Da'wah Party.
The reason for the disparity in the fortunes of the sectarian parties is primarily the fact that Shi'a majority areas were subjected to huge publicity campaigns with high sectarian content, which employed a very broad scope of political currency, with the objective of maintaining a sectarian electoral voice. The popularity of the Sadr movement and its dependence on the religious Shi'a sentiment played a great part in securing a broad voter base, especially in the lower economic classes of Shi'a voters. At the same time, Al-Maliki had a two-pronged approach: first, he used his position as prime minister and the privileges of that office (political influence, finances, prestige, the ability to provide jobs), and, second, he tried to sell himself as the only person qualified to preserve the national unity and stability of Iraq.
All this could not prevent the rise of Al-Iraqiya and its secular nationalist programme of Arabism. This despite its short lifespan, the accusation that some of its leaders were Baathists, and its alliance to foreign powers, not to mention its succumbing to the pre-election "eradication" campaign which disqualified many of its main leaders. Al-Iraqiya and its mixed Sunni-Shi'a leadership received a considerable number of votes from predominantly Shi'a provinces, and had a huge success in the Sunni majority provinces as well as the votes of Iraqis abroad. If current leaks from the Electoral Commission are true, then Al-Iraqiya was contesting for second place in the provinces of Karbala, Najaf, Annasiriyya and Basra, but early manipulation in the counting of ballots forced it into third place. Al-Iraqiya's performance in the capital, Baghdad, was also a surprise. Baghdad, because of the large number of seats allocated to the capital, was where the most pressure was exerted and where the largest amount of vote fraud was attempted. In any event, Al-Iraqiya received a considerable percentage of votes in all the Arab provinces, in addition to the number of seats it won in Kirkuk, which was equal to the number of seats won by the Kurdish coalition, putting an end to the legend of a Kurdish majority in that province.
Scenarios for the Coalition Government
There are a number of facts which emerge from an analysis of the election results, with regard to a future government. These can be summarised as follows:
- A single list of candidates, or even an alliance of two lists, will not be sufficient to create a government, because of the distribution of votes between the various lists.
- The very volatile and fragile Iraqi state imposes the need for the major ethnicities and sects to be represented in government. Given the collapse of the chances of the Sunni Coalition and the non-performance of the Sunni candidates who were under the banners of the National Coalition and the State of Law, it becomes very difficult to ignore the list of Al-Iraqiya in the formation of the new government, whatever the new coalition looks like, because Al-Iraqiya won an absolute majority of the votes of Sunni Arabs.
- Despite the decline of the coalition of the two Kurdish nationalist parties, it remains necessary for the maintenance of peace and stability in the country for this list to be represented in the new government. This is what makes the Kurdish bloc a force to be reckoned with, as it has a veto on any proposal for a new government.
- Iraq is still a space for foreign and regional interference. Iran will undoubtedly have a huge role to play in the upcoming deals to create the new government, with Turkey's role probably being in second place. The Americans will most likely restrain themselves from interfering and be satisfied with being observers as they have been in the weeks running up to the election. The fears of a huge Saudi or Jordanian role in the formation of the new government are based on highly exaggerated rumours.
It is important to remember that the president of the country needs to be elected first. The president then appoints the prime minister, who is tasked with forming a new government. Because the election of the president requires a two-thirds majority of parliament, it is a foregone conclusion that the coalition that elects the president will form the new government as well. This means there will be one deal that will name the president as well as the prime minister and form the new coalition government.
The following are the most probable scenarios for the necessary coalition to create the new government:
- A coalition of the State of Law, National Coalition and the Kurdish bloc. This is what Tehran is pushing towards, as such an arrangement will ensure that the prime minister will be an Iranian loyalist from one of the two Shi'a lists. If the Kurds agree, they will demand the position of president, and at least one prominent ministerial position. They will also make other political demands in relation to the empowering of their autonomous rule and other outstanding issues in Kirkuk and Mosul. This scenario will mean that Al-Maliki will have to forfeit his aspirations of becoming the next prime minister because the Sadri supporters, who make up the majority of the National Coalition, will veto his aspirations. The other problem with this scenario is that it alienates Al-Iraqiya, thus neglecting to allow for any serious representation of Arab Sunnis.
- Ankara, which seeks to promote the stability and unity of Iraq, is against Scenario 1, and will try to avert it by striking a deal with Tehran, pressurizing the Kurds or both, in order to ensure the leadership of Al-Iraqiya in the new government. Leaders of Al-Iraqiya are themselves courting the Kurds and offering them assurances in return for their support of the Al-Iraqiya candidate for the prime minister and for the Kurds' refusal to endorse an ethnic-based coalition as proposed in the previous scenario. In this case, Al-Iraqiya would have to abide by Kurdish demands for the position of president and for the heads of prominent ministries, as well as agreeing to resolve outstanding political issues with the Kurds. Al-Iraqiya can threaten to complicate those political issues if the Kurds choose the first scenario, since the outstanding political issues are largely between Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The agreement of the Kurds will not be enough for Al-Iraqiya, and there will have to be an inclusion of either the National Coalition or the State of Law, on the promise that either of them will receive the major share of Shi'a ministerial seats in the new government. In this case, Iran will have to forfeit its opposition to an Al-Iraqiya candidate heading government.
- This scenario presupposes the failure of the above two solutions, and means a return to a government of national unity, which will encompass all the parties that won seats in the elections. In this case, the struggle will again be about who is the prime minister, and the Kurds will once more play an important role as the defining minority. It is, however, evident that Al-Maliki will not be the prime minister not only because his list did not come out first, but also because of the Sadri-Shia and Arab-Sunni opposition to him, as well as the unwillingness of the Kurds to work with him again.
Whatever the outcome, the new government will not be able to protect itself from a system of power-sharing, since none of the party lists was able to realise a victory that would give it a tangible majority and a dominant role in parliament.
The Elections and the future of Iraq
These elections have given new hope to the Iraqi people. They have taken place in an atmosphere of a significant reduction of violence – despite calls by Al-Qaeda to disrupt the elections and U.S. reluctance to engage in the Iraqi issue; the elections have seen a huge turnout by Sunni Arabs, which reveals the willingness of Sunni Arabs to work in the realm of the new system – on condition that it is reformed.
This new beacon of hope could prompt Iraqis to establish a new government that will oversee the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and rid the country of the evils of the previous government – even if just partially, whether in respect of sectarianism, or corruption and incompetency in service delivery and the reconstruction of basic infrastructure. It can be argued that the moderate secular, nationalist vision of the Al-Iraqiya list, if given the opportunity to govern, can accomplish – even partially – the aspirations of Iraqis to return to stability and to restore balance to this Arab country. This possibility is heightened by the fact that some of the Al-Iraqiya leaders, such as Osama Nujaifi and Rafi al-Issawi, are among the most popular and upright new Iraqi politicians.
If these elections fail to pave the road for the formation of a new united government, it will be difficult to bet on the future of Iraq. It is also important not to exaggerate the various predictions, as the situation in Iraq is extremely complex. A significant portion of popular opinion among Shia-Arabs is still imprisoned by the rhetoric and political clout of sectarianism, and for many reasons which cannot be mentioned here, Iranian interference continues to entrench sectarian politics in Iraq. Due to the fragmentation of Iraqi politics, it will be impossible for one list to form the new government alone
* This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) and the Doha-based Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies. The article was originally published in Arabic by the Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, and has been translated and republished in English by AMEC.