Iraq Votes for the Status Quo

May 19, 2014 | 2256 GMT

Iraqi voters have largely chosen political continuity, despite growing discontent with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The results of the April 30 parliamentary elections — just the third such vote since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the first since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 — released Monday showed Al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance winning around 93 of the parliament’s 328 seats. No other bloc, including those led by the prime minister’s Shiite rivals, won more than 30 seats. The incumbent’s decisive victory is particularly good news for Iran at a time when Tehran’s own foreign policy outlook is evolving.
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Democratic politics in Iraq will always be dominated by the Shia, but intra-communal power struggles within each of Iraq’s three principal groups — the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds — will continually challenge the power dynamic in Baghdad from election to election. Many of Tehran’s closest Shiite allies in Iraq — namely, the movements led by Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim — had been lobbying for the removal of al-Maliki, Iraq’s only prime minister since the country’s constitution was ratified in 2005.
The Iranians shared concerns that al-Maliki’s autocratic tendencies had weakened the Shiite political position in Iraq and fueled opposition from Kurdish and Sunni camps. Nonetheless, Tehran was in no mood for any radical changes in Baghdad and told al-Maliki’s rivals that the results of the elections would be decisive. State of Law’s electoral triumph will prevent any major disruptions to the status quo.
However, cobbling together a new governing coalition will not be easy. Compared to past elections, intra-communal fragmentation has increased considerably in Iraq. Among the Shia, for example, the movements led by al-Sadr and al-Hakim won 29 and 28 seats, respectively. Meanwhile, the Sunni vote was divided among three alliances, with 23 seats won by Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s Mutahidoun bloc, 21 seats going to former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya list, and 10 seats for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq’s al-Arabiya list. The Kurdish vote was similarly divided. Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party won 25 seats. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan won 21 seats. An emergent third force called the Gorran movement won nine seats.
Ultimately, al-Maliki needs both Sunnis and the Kurds in his government. (The prime minister will need support from 165 seats to hold onto the post.) But the fractured political dynamic could make the task of forming a government far more difficult than in his first two terms. Moreover, his relations with the Kurds, who have played a critical role in sustaining Shiite dominance, are at an all-time low. The prime minister may also find it more difficult to exploit intra-Sunni divisions, since the three Sunni factions have announced that they will vote as a unified bloc in the parliament.
Al-Maliki’s coalition-building efforts will focus first on the Shiite blocs, the Kurds and the Sunnis. It would be surprising if this bargaining process did not last until the final weeks of the year. However, even in an interim status, al-Maliki will be able to continue governing without major disruption, given the strength of his bloc’s electoral victory. Indeed, his alliance will grow even more powerful once other Shiite movements join the governing coalition.
From the Iranian point of view, Tehran’s influence remains predominant in Baghdad, the historical capital of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence over the Alawite-controlled Damascus — the region’s other historically Sunni power center — also remains secure. The Levantine-Mesopotamian landmass between these two pro-Iranian capitals is being fought over by various Sunni non-state actors, but many of these are transnational jihadists linked to al Qaeda who the West would never support. Compared to recent years, when Western sanctions and rebel gains in the Syrian civil war seemed likely to diminish Iran’s regional influence, the world from Tehran’s window could not look any better.