April 26, 2014 | 1300 GMT
(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqis walk past election campagin billboards in Kahramana Square in Baghdad on April 13.
Opponents of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have chosen the April 30 parliamentary elections to launch their strongest challenge yet. New electoral laws have created conditions that could reverse the past decade’s trend of large powerful coalitions, weaken sectarian alliances and encourage greater infighting within and among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political groups. This means the election process will probably be longer and more divisive than ever before as an unprecedented number of political actors try to create a fragile power-sharing agreement. As a result, the central government will become weaker, and its authority will be further undermined by increased paralysis in the legislature.
This will pose new challenges for Iran as it tries to maintain its influence over a patchwork of political actors leading a new ruling coalition. Iranian influence has also been increasingly challenged by cautious Turkish inroads into Kurdistan and more aggressive moves by Saudi Arabia. However, despite the challenges facing Iraq’s future government and its Shiite benefactors in Iran, the Shiite factions will not lose control of the central pillars of Iraqi stability: the oil sector, the military, state finances and foreign policy. Rather, Baghdad will see a gradual decline in its ability to manage the demands of the country’s minority populations.
Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein-led Baathist regime in 2003, Iraq’s parliamentary elections have been dominated by a few large and powerful political blocs, each of which broadly represented the country’s Shiite, Sunni Arab or Kurdish ethnic populations. These broad blocs allowed al-Maliki to dominate Shiite politics and provided a relatively small number of familiar partners with whom he could negotiate a power-sharing agreement. The system became institutionalized with the help of the security establishment and oil revenues. A government comprising a select few blocs that could be bought off with occasional concessions gave al-Maliki significant leverage as he passed laws meant to ensure centralized control over the historically restive Kurdish and Sunni regions.
In the March 2010 general elections, this system showed the first signs of cracking when a split within the country’s Shiite political base rose in rejection of al-Maliki’s consolidation of power and polarizing policies. Though al-Maliki and his State of Law coalition remained the largest Shiite political bloc, they found themselves in a tight competition for Shiite votes against the Iraqi National Alliance, led by Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim. Since then, rising Shiite competition, led once more by al-Sadr and al-Hakim, has incited an intra-communal rebellion of sorts. This coordinated opposition effort succeeded in passing a series of electoral reforms, which have thrown al-Maliki’s patronage network into complete disarray, encouraging smaller parties within sectarian groups to branch off and run separately, making way for a diverse range of political actors.
An amendment to the vote distribution law passed in November 2013 allows smaller parties to contest leftover seats. Under the previous method of vote distribution, when small parties barely missed the required ballot threshold, their votes would simply go to the largest parties, adding a fairly substantial number once tallied. These additional votes served to further bolster the influence of institutionalized parties and candidates, leading many disenfranchised political actors to criticize the system for facilitating the monopolization of power. The debate to reform this electoral law in late 2013 pitted al-Maliki’s State of Law against actors such as the Kurds, who sought a more inclusive system. Notably, some of the staunchest backers of the new system were opposition groups within al-Maliki’s Shiite community, most notably al-Sadr and his Al-Ahrar movement, and to a lesser extent al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is now heading a new electoral platform called the Citizen Coalition.
Combined with a precedent set by the Constitutional Court in the aftermath of the 2010 elections allowing the formation of larger coalitions after votes are counted, the electoral reforms are encouraging smaller blocs to compete with rival groups over support within their respective ethnic and sectarian populations. In the lead-up to the April 30 elections, smaller, cohesive and targeted party lists have proliferated, increasing the number of registered parties from 160 in 2010 to 276. Each sectarian group now has three or more powerful blocs competing for votes within its areas of influence.
As a result, the Kurds, who normally run on a strong united Kurdistan platform, are now split into a number of independent lists. Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, which has dominated the Kurdistan Regional Government, is now running separately from its traditional political partner, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as well as the increasingly popular Gorran (Change) Movement. These three parties have been locked in bitter infighting over the formation of their own government — a direct result of Gorran’s success in the November 2013 regional elections, which has upset the balance of power within Iraqi Kurdistan. Also in the running will be the region’s two Islamist parties, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Islamic Union.
In 2010, Sunni Arab parties were consolidated under Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya List. Now, however, a few main political forces all competing for Sunni Arab votes have emerged, including Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi’s Mutahidoun coalition and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Dialogue Front (Arabiya bloc). Notably, Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord (Wataniya bloc), while technically running on a non-sectarian platform, maintains its traditional support base within the Sunni Arab population, and unlike in the 2010 vote Allawi’s ability to compete for ballots beyond Sunni Arab regions will be limited. Renewed insurgency by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and local tribes emanating from the Sunni stronghold of Anbar — a direct result of spillover from the Syrian civil war — has widened the rift between those political factions that blame al-Maliki and the Iraqi army for enflaming the crisis and those elements looking to cooperate with the central government to counter the militant threat.
Many pre-eminent Shiite political figures have launched independent campaigns. Of the many Shiite parties, the main three are al-Maliki’s State of Law, al-Hakim’s Citizen Coalition and al-Sadr’s Al-Ahrar Movement. Other notable groupings include the political stalwart Ibrahim Jaafari’s National Alliance bloc, Ayatollah Mohammad Yaqoobi’s Daawa splinter group al-Fadhila (Islamic Virtue Party), the non-sectarian White Iraqiyya bloc and the former Sadrist paramilitary group-turned political party Asaeb Ahl al-Haqq (Khazali Network). State of Law has seen considerable loss of membership and is no longer the dominant Shiite political platform.
Problems in Government Formation
To obtain the necessary seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, any potential government must consolidate the majority of these blocs into a large ruling coalition. Iraqi government formation, which since the establishment of Iraq’s post-Baathist charter in 2005 has been notoriously challenging and lengthy, has over the past decade followed a coordinated series of steps. First, all Shiite blocs are consolidated within a broad sectarian platform, and then a large, unified Kurdish bloc is integrated into the now-majority government in exchange for limited concessions regarding the Kurdistan Regional Government’s autonomy. Last, pro-Baghdad Sunni blocs are co-opted to prevent a larger insurgency in exchange for token ministerial positions and limited concessions. From the perspective of Baghdad’s Shiite majority, sidelining either the Kurds or Sunnis risks rebellion by disaffected regions against Baghdad’s central authority. The current divisions within each faction will make this process exceedingly difficult, involving an unprecedented number of actors with wide ranges in demands.
Small actors who previously held little weight within larger entities will now be able to more effectively pressure larger coalitions to compromise on their demands, knowing that their seats (while limited) are necessary for a government seeking majority status. Since smaller political platforms typically run on a few core policies and serve a narrow constituency, they will prove highly reluctant to give in on key demands before accepting their partnership role. In most of these situations, compromise will be reached after prolonged stalemate — with the leading coalition badly in need of greater representation and the smaller parties unwilling to find themselves sidelined in the opposition. The end result will likely be a ruling government, which, though more inclusive, will only deepen the paralysis and infighting that has plagued Baghdad over the years.
The new government will also be formed with a great deal of prodding by regional and international powers, most important of which is Iran, followed by the United States and Turkey. Iran has enjoyed greater influence in Iraq since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003, but a gridlocked parliament and a fractured Shiite political leadership threatens to hamstring Iranian attempts to counter regional competitors. In particular, Turkey has been testing how far it can push the limits of its relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government and Barzani in particular, carefully making sure its ambitions do not risk blowback from Baghdad and Tehran. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, fearful of the regional implications of a potential Iranian resurgence after the U.S.-Iranian negotiations, has been actively seeking opportunities to undermine Iranian influence, and a disenfranchised Iraqi Sunni Arab population provides Riyadh potential leverage over Tehran. While Iran’s influence over the Iraqi Shiite community has proved resilient in the past, Tehran will find it increasingly difficult to mobilize a Shiite polity witnessing unprecedented levels of infighting.
Despite the challenges facing Iraq’s future government, we are unlikely to see a substantial shift in Shiite domination. Iraq’s Shiite majority, while divided by bitter internal power struggles, is united by the imperative to maintain control over the state at the expense of the country’s minority populations. For the time being, the Shia will weather the post-electoral political storm, but as Baghdad becomes increasingly perceived as inept and powerless, the Shiite leadership will likely struggle to manage the country’s delicate sectarian balance.