Iraqis cast their votes on January 31 in new provincial council elections whose outcome could shape Iraq’s balance of power and set the tone for the upcoming general elections in December 2009. With 440 seats contested in 14 provinces, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawalt al-Qanon (State of Law) coalition appears to be the overwhelming winner in the elections, though the final results will not be announced until later this month (Aswat al-Iraq, February 5; IRNA, February 5). Holding sway in Baghdad and various southern provinces, al-Maliki has now gained influence in areas where his coalition previously lacked control, especially in southern regions like Basra and Dhi Qar. For the most part, al-Maliki appears to have been rewarded for his forceful action against militia politics, which began with the spring 2008 assault on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Now al-Maliki’s leadership is supported by voters who desire a more centralized and efficient form of government, such as that developed by al-Maliki in the latter part of his tenure in office.
The clear loser in the elections is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). A pro-Iranian Shi’a party that was part of the Shaheed al-Mihrab list (a coalition of Shiite political parties), ISCI lost considerable support following allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence in recent years (al-Jazeera, February 5). With the loss of seven Shia regions that it took in the 2005 elections, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s party is now one of the weakest parties on the political map (Middle East Online, February 5). The news comes as a major blow to the leaders of the ISCI, who hoped that a victory in the elections would help them create a nine-governorate federal region in the south of the country. Meanwhile, Sunni politics saw an increase in voter participation along with the rise of new tribal-political factions in Anbar province like the Awakening Alliance, which won 17 percent of the votes, and the anti-al Qaeda faction of Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, with 17.6 percent of the votes (Niqash, February 12; al-Jazeera, February 5).
Accordingly, the Salah al-Din province, with a large Sunni population, claimed the highest level of voter participation (65 percent), a sharp contrast from 2005, when Sunnis boycotted the elections to protest the American influence in Iraqi politics (Fars, February 1). In another example, the Sunni al-Hadba bloc came out on top of the Kurdish factions in the ethnically mixed province of Nineveh, taking away the Shi’a and Kurdish hegemony in Baghdad and the central provinces (Middle East Online, February 5). With 51 percent overall voter participation, the elections have been described as a major success for a country still undergoing a significant transformation after years of single-party rule (IRNA, February 5).
The election results, however, involve a number of salient implications, which can be more complex than early readings suggest. In a sense, the elections signal a shift away from the project of regionalization (federalism) that, according to many Iraqi nationalists, put the country’s political stability at risk with the promotion of ethno-sectarian identity politics (Niqash, February 3). But what the results primarily verify is the growing fragmentation of the Iraqi political landscape, marked by major splits between larger Shia parties (like ISCI) and the Dawa. Furthermore, divisions have also emerged within Sunni parties, especially inside the Tawafuq Front, with several parties pulling out of the coalition due to the overwhelming domination of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) in the Sunni coalition (Niqash, February 3). There is also the newly formed nationalist faction, the Iraqi National Project, which mainly ran on nationalistic rather than sectarian agenda (Middle East Online, February 11). On the Shi’a front, new political trends can be detected with the appearance of independent groups like the Yusuf al-Hububi party in Karbala and the decline of more established pro-federalist Shi’a parties like Fadhila in Basra, winning only 1.3 percent of votes (Aswat Al-Iraq, February 5).
Some troubling signs that merit serious attention have emerged from the election outcome:
• First of all, the latest results of the elections hardly indicate that the State of Law coalition (al-Maliki’s faction) has won a sweeping victory, especially in Baghdad and the southern Shi’a provinces where Sadrists still maintain some level of influence, despite the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr’s group was banned from participating on the grounds that it maintains a militia (Middle East Online February 9). In Karbala, for instance, where al-Maliki’s Dawa party won a clear victory in 2005, the independent Yusuf al-Hububi party surprised many when it beat out many famous Shi’a competitors in the province. So, in many ways, al-Maliki’s grip on power still still seems shaky. This is partly because of the way some Shia voters are beginning to see Maliki as someone who backs certain former Ba’athists, a perception promoted by the ISCI ahead of the general elections. Thus, al-Maliki’s true degree of success is still unknown.
• Second, there is the possibility of a backlash from the pro-federalist factions, especially the Kurdish bloc, which may lead to the emergence of a more centralized state and a considerable threat to their regional or party interests. This may complicate the political situation even more with regards to the Kurdish claim over Kirkuk, where, due to major differences between Baghdad and Erbil, the provincial elections never took place (al-Jazeera, February 1). In the southern regions, the province of Misan has already begun to see a pro-federalist backlash. More than a week after the elections, a total of 25 parties formed an alliance to launch a civil disobedience demonstration to protest the results of the polls (Aswat al-Iraq, February 12).
• Third, the elections shed light on a deepening rift within the Shi’a bloc, which could enhance competition and a potential outbreak of violence for control over territories. While the ISCI will likely seek to repair its losses in the general elections by becoming more competitive on the local level in provinces like Basra and Diyala, the Sadrists, who appear to have been largely marginalized as a result of Baghdad’s political and military tactics in the previous year, could see the current situation as a threat and reconstitute the Mahdi Army. In fact, the Sadrists are already alleging voter fraud in the provinces of Maysan, Najaf, and Dhi Qar, while Sadr has issued a new statement that rejects negotiations of any sort with Washington, recalling the group’s commitment to armed resistance (Middle East Online, February 9; Fars, February 1). In many ways, the Sadrist factor is still relevant and the elections bring to light how intra-Shi’a politics are entering a new stage of competition, rather than coming to an end.
• Fourth, the latest string of coordinated attacks southwest of Baghdad, Karbala, and Nasseriya suggests an existing organized insurgent movement that seeks to interrupt the fragile political situation on the ground (Aswat al-Iraq, February 12).
• Finally, there is Iran. For the most part, Tehran’s hardliners are aware of their loss of influence in Iraqi politics as a result of the ISCI’s decline in popularity and the advent of Iraqi nationalism with the victory of al-Maliki. Yet Iranian newspapers maintained a low-key position on the rise of Sunni political factions and, in some instances, described the latest results as a clear victory for "Islamist" groups with the aim of keeping religion as the basis of the Iraqi political order (Fars, February 5). The ISCI’s defeat in the elections was described as a major "victory," while the decline of Shi’a voter participation, especially in the province of Diyala, was primarily blamed on a lack of security in the southern regions (Fars February 1; IRNA, February 5).
Despite the latest setbacks, Iran remains defiant. On the day the initial results of the elections were announced, Mohsen Rezaee, the Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council (a consultative council to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenini) and a leading hard-line politician in the Islamic Republic, asserted that Iran still remains the most influential force in the region (Fars, February 5). The remark could be interpreted as a warning to Washington. It remains unclear how Tehran could change its strategy in Iraq, but the Sadrists, whose leader resides in Qom, could play a vital role in such a process.
Of course, most of the above security factors and their impact on Iraq’s security situation will depend on whether or not stable alliances will emerge in the post-electoral period and how such coalitions might affect the parliamentary elections later this year. If the Sadrists, for instance, join forces with al-Maliki’s ruling party, the chances of internal Shi’a conflict may be reduced if the ISCI seeks to build a coalition with Kurdish factions (Middle East Online February 11). The political landscape could also look very different if ISCI forms an alliance with the faction of Iyad Alawi, signaling the rise of a major political competition between exiled Shi’a factions (both secular and religious) over key positions in the parliament (Niqash, February 12).
In sum, the elections have exposed a sense of national stability that appears to revolve around the rejection of a decentralized and fragmented form of governance, which many Iraqis fear will put the country’s fledgling democracy at risk of a resurrection of unruly militia politics. The advent of a centralist-nationalist mood underscores Iraqis’ desire for restored sovereignty in a state that is efficient, centralized, and capable of providing its citizens with security and economic stability without the help of foreign forces.