international analysis and commentary

Democracy still on hold in Iraq

Although Iraq’s second parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion represent a milestone, they will neither resolve the country’s existential crisis nor bring it a step closer to genuine democracy. Results released by the inept Independent High Electoral Commission showed little change in political attitudes and loyalties. On the whole, Iraqis voted along sectarian and ethnic lines, not by party or ideology. Sect, ethnicity and tribe trumpeted other loyalties, including the nation.  
For the foreseeable future Iraqi politics will be toxically fragmented along sectarian, ethnic and personality lines, though fear of all-out civil war is unwarranted. A week after the balloting, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition headed by ex-premier Iyad Allawi were projected to win roughly the same number of seats, about 87, in Iraq’s 325-member parliament.

The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a grouping of Shiite religious parties closely linked to Iran, is set to come in at a close third with 67 seats, while the powerful main Kurdistan alliance of President Jalal Barzani and Massoud Talabani led as expected in Erbil, the autonomous Kurdish region with 38 seats. 

Far from a triumph for democracy, the results threaten to plunge Iraq into a constitutional and leadership vacuum. With al-Maliki and his main rival, Allawi, falling short of the mandate – the 163 seats needed – to govern alone, they will likely need to ally with one or two blocs to form a coalition government, a complicated negotiating process fraught with security risks that might last months and put sectarian leaders back in the driver’s seat.

After the last parliamentary poll in 2005, sectarian violence erupted as political leaders clashed for more than five months in an effort to form a government. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, plunging the country into the brink of all-out civil war. 
Although the security situation has improved today, the next few weeks will test Iraq’s fragile institutions to the breaking point. Unless they rise up to the challenge and build a reformist, cross-sectarian government, Iraqi political leaders could squander the precious security gains achieved in the last three years.

Early signs are not reassuring. A streamflow of fraud allegations by the two leading blocs of al-Maliki and Allawi risks delegitimizing the whole electoral process. As his coalition’s lead had slipped, al-Maliki called for a recount of all ballots and accused election officials of doctoring tallies in some of the country’s 50,000 polling stations before ballots were sent to Baghdad, a serious charge. Likewise, Allawi had made similar fraud allegations when the vote count showed him trailing behind al-Maliki.

On the face of it, the fierce political struggle mirrored in the tally bodes well for transition to democracy. But the reality is much more complex and alarming than the mere distribution of parliamentary seats. Sectarianism is deeply entrenched in the Iraq body politic.
For example, Allawi, a secular Shiite who has emerged as the main rival to al-Maliki, has drawn on heavy Sunni support in his campaign in central and western Iraq, appealing to Sunni Arab voters frustrated with their own incompetent religious leaders who are also attracted to Allawi’s nonsectarian and anti-Iran stance. Particularly resonating with Sunni voters was Allawi’s criticism of al-Maliki’s partisanship and failure to aggressively promote reconciliation between the country’s warring communities.

In contrast, few Sunni Arabs cast a ballot for al-Maliki, a Shiite, who failed to finish in the top three in all but one of Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces, a fact that speaks volumes about the sectarian polarization of Iraq seven years after the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime. Sensing public dissatisfaction with sectarian-religious parties, al-Maliki recasts himself as a non-sectarian nationalist who has brought law and order to the war-torn country, calling his coalition the State of Law.

Al-Maliki’s gamble did not fully pay off. Resenting his decision to ban hundreds of mostly Sunni candidates suspected of links to Saddam’s Baath party, many Sunnis are unconvinced that the Prime Minister has shed his sectarian inheritance and consider al-Dawa, a Shiite-based organization of the INA variety, the driver behind the State of Law. Others are suspicious of his continued, if reduced, ties to Iran. 

While the results indicate that conservative Shiite and Sunni sectarian-based parties, like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), did very poorly, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters are the big winners. Defying widespread prediction that the Sadrists were a spent force after suffering repeated military setbacks against the Americans and the Iraqi military, the Sadrists are expected to win more than 40 seats. That would be a bloc roughly the size of the Kurds, who have served as kingmakers in tilting the balance of political power since 2005 and who are a potent Shiite rival of al-Maliki. The Sadrists have emerged as a leading social movement that can no longer be excluded or isolated.

The Sadrists’ spectacular gains complicate the effort to cobble together a governing coalition. They are bitter enemies of al-Maliki, who in 2008 sent the army to Basra and Baghdad and put down a challenge by al-Sadr’s militia called the Mahdi Army or Jaish al-Mahdi. Al-Sadr, who lives in Iran and has close ties with the mullah regime, has spearheaded resistance to the US military presence amongst Iraqi Shiites, and his supporters repeatedly clashed with the Americans. His victory is welcome news to the Iranian regime which played a key role in setting up the INA bloc by bridging the divide between SIIC and the Sadrists.

With the exception of Allawi’s secularist, cross-sectarian alliance, the balance of power favors sectarian orientation cloaked in various disguises. In the end, given his religious base of support in Baghdad and rural southern provinces, al-Maliki will likely try to form a government composed of some of his estranged former Shiite partners and current Kurdish allies. That eventuality would alienate Sunni Arabs who, for the first time, voted in large numbers and threaten to fan the sectarian flame.      

Regardless of what blocs form the new government, the US and Iran will be the two most influential external players in Iraq. Iran yields considerable influence by virtue of its co-opting leading Shiite groups and positioning itself to replace the US as the dominant power once American troops exit Iraq next year. 

While distancing himself a little from Tehran, al-Maliki has not cut the umbilical cord with his giant neighbor. As he often states, Iran will be there after the Americans depart Iraq. Even if Allawi gets the premiership, he will unlikely antagonize the Mullah regime because that would be costly and destabilizing. Allawi would turn to the Sunni-dominated Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, to counterbalance Iranian influence.  

The vote result means that the Iranian regime will be unable to call the shots in Iraq and fill the  vacuum left by the US exist. Far from it, the new coalition government in Baghdad – whether led by al-Maliki or Allawi – will seek to maintain good relations with the Americans and Iranians and to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket. Despite their previous criticism of US interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, al-Maliki and Allawi view the relationship with the US as critical to maintaining stability and peace in the short term and to deterring the country’s ambitious neighbors.

By honoring its commitment to withdraw American troops from Iraq, the Obama administration will begin the process of repairing the damage done by its predecessor and building a new relationship based on mutual interests, not domination. Iraqis must take ownership of their country, their security and their future.