international analysis and commentary

Iraq’s continuing constitutional crisis

The second Iraqi parliamentary elections – rare in an Arab country – proved a damp squib. Contrary to expectations that the first successful electoral exercise might set off democracy fever in the Middle East, the Baghdad ballot was greeted with a weary yawn. The electoral exercise not only showed undemocratic and sectarian politics alive and well, it helped to reinforce the Shia-Sunni divide backed by foreign powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Although a nominally secular coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister, edged ahead in Iraq’s March parliamentary elections, the results risk plunging the country into a constitutional crisis and leadership vacuum. Far from shattering the sectarian template, on the whole Iraqis voted for their sect and tribe. Shiites voted for Shiite candidates, Kurds voted for Kurds and Sunni Arabs voted for Sunni candidates allied with Allawi, a nationalist Shiite.

While residents in neighboring countries closely monitored the Iraqi elections through satellite television networks, there was no sense of excitement or praise for the electoral experiment. Everything in Iraq is viewed through the prism of sectarian polarization and violence and US and Iranian dominance. Arab commentators dismissed the elections as a futile exercise designed to perpetuate foreign control and keep Iraqis divided. The fear that the badly divided parties would be unable to form a government and lead to violence and perhaps a military takeover also dampened whatever enthusiasm the process may have initially generated.

The roots of the failure go back to post-invasion US policies. Instead of making Iraq ripe for democracy, the 2003 US-led invasion has established a sectarian-based political system like neighboring Lebanon where sect and ethnicity trump other loyalties, including the nation. In their effort to empower the Shiites, a majority, and weaken Saddam Hussein’s Sunni constituency, the post-invasion US strategy allocated power and resources along communal lines. The US occupying authority unwittingly entrenched and institutionalized sectarianism rather than strengthen progressive, liberal forces. A major casualty was Washington’s desire to turn post-Saddam Hussein Iraq into a democratic model for its Arab and Muslim neighbors.

Many Arabs and Muslims were shocked by the sectarian bloodshed that followed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and that continues, though reduced, today. The rise of Iranian Shiite influence in Iraq has also sent a wrong message to neighboring Sunni Arabs – many of whom believe that the US and Iran colluded to weaken and marginalize their co-religionists there. 

Although Allawi won a plurality, 91 seats in the parliament to 89 for Maliki, he has fallen short of the constitutional mandate – the 163 seats needed – to govern alone. Allawi and Maliki must ally with one or two blocs to form a coalition government which may end up putting sectarian leaders back in the driver’s seat.

The Iraqi National Alliance (INA) – a grouping of Shiite religious parties closely linked to Iran which includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists, supporters of the radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr – is set to come in at a close third with 70 seats, while the powerful main Kurdistan alliance of President Jalal Barzani and Massoud Talabani led as expected in Erbil, the autonomous Kurdish region with about 43. 

Although the security situation has improved today and fear of all-out civil war is unwarranted, 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 precious security gains made in the last three years and motivate the army to step in and fill the void. A military takeover is a real possibility.

As his coalition’s lead slipped, Maliki called for a nationwide recount of all ballots, and invoked his position as commander in chief of the military, suggesting that the country could return to violence if his demand was not met.

Political and legal maneuvering and positioning threaten to polarize the country further. After the inept Independent High Electoral Commission (HEC) released the results, Maliki called them fraudulent and “unacceptable” and said he plans to appeal to the Federal Supreme Court, Iraq’s highest court, for a manual recount. Maliki already got the Supreme Court to rule to choose not the leader of the voting bloc with the highest number of seats when the results are ratified, but the leader with the most seats after the new parliament is seated, a maneuver designed to deprive Allawi of the first chance to form a government if Maliki puts together a majority.    

The fact is that successful democracy requires more than honest victory in election. Critical variables like the existence of parties that transcend communal and ethnic lines that sustain and nourish a genuine democracy are missing in the new Iraq. With the exception of Allawi’s secularist, cross-sectarian alliance, the balance of power favors sectarian orientation cloaked in various disguises.

Allawi, a secular Shiite who has emerged as the main rival to Maliki, has drawn mostly on heavy Sunni support in his campaign in central and western Iraq and Baghdad, appealing to marginalized Sunni Arab voters. Particularly resonating with Sunni voters was Allawi’s criticism of Maliki’s sectarian partisan and anti-Iran stance. Allawi also won the backing of hundreds of thousands of non-sectarian Shiites, a rare positive development. Sensing public dissatisfaction with sectarian-religious parties, Maliki recast himself as a non-sectarian nationalist. But his gamble did not pay off. Many Sunnis are unconvinced that the Prime Minister has shed his sectarian inheritance and are suspicious of his continued, if reduced, ties to Iran. 

There are credible reports that the two main Shiite coalitions – the State of Law and INA – are discussing a political merger that aims at sidelining secularist Allawi. The only obstacle standing in the way of a unified Shiite union is the Sadrists who have emerged as a leading social movement that can no longer be excluded or isolated. They have made it abundantly clear that they oppose Maliki remaining as prime minister.

Iran’s role will be crucial in whether to pressure al-Sadr to drop his objection to Maliki or convince the latter to agree to a neutral candidate. The eventuality of a Shiite merger and another sectarian-based government would alienate Sunni Arabs who, for the first time, voted in large numbers and threaten to fan the sectarian flame. Such a scenario would also fan the sectarian flame throughout the region, particularly in Lebanon and the Gulf, and complicate the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops which are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of August. 

The elections have not done anything to reduce foreign involvement in Iraq. Iran yields considerable influence by virtue of its co-opting leading Shiite groups and clerics and deepening economic and cultural ties with its neighbors since 2003. Even if Allawi gets the premiership, he will be unlikely to antagonize the Iranian regime because that would be costly and destabilizing. And he might turn to the Sunni-dominated Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, to counterbalance Iranian influence.

During the election campaign Allawi was criticized for spending time in Saudi Arabia, where his warm welcome was cited as a signal that an Allawi-led government would be welcomed in the Sunni Arab world. To counterbalance Iranian influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has explicitly backed Allawi and encouraged Sunni Arabs to embrace him, a fact that speaks volumes about the intense rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For the foreseeable future, Iraq will likely be a critical theatre whereby Saudi Arabia and Iran wage a war by proxy, one that might spillover into neighboring countries.