Iraq’s next round of elections, scheduled for April 2014, will be a tough test of democracy in the country. They’ll be the first elections held in Iraq without major US presence while the country is also facing numerous challenges in political, security-related and economic areas.
Looking ahead, there are around 39 major coalitions planning to run and around 244 different political entities taking part in the elections; around three dozen parties, mostly from the provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, have decided not to take part in elections because of security issues.
And as one might expect, the wrangling over coalitions, partnerships and power balancing has already started behind the scenes.
The ultimate goal for almost all parties competing in the elections, due to be held at the end of April, is clear though: the Prime Minister’s chair. After eight years of leadership from current prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki it is clear to most ordinary Iraqis, and therefore also to their politicians, that this is the most powerful position in the country. Over the past decade the executive branch of Iraq’s government has shown that it seems to have more power over what goes on in the country than Iraq’s parliament.
And how will the next Iraqi Prime Minister be chosen? Doubtless the person will be chosen by the members of political alliances that form after the upcoming federal elections. Right now the shape of those alliances are far from clear cut. Additionally the fact that Iraq’s current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is so deeply unpopular and that his mostly Shiite Muslim political alliance has been crumbling, alongside the differences in opinion among Iraq’s Sunni Muslim politicians, means that voters will definitely see some new alliances formed.
Analysts inside and outside the country are already coming up with a number of scenarios they believe may occur.
The first involves what has become the “traditional” political scenario in Iraq with three main forces holding sway: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and the Iraqi Kurdish. This scenario is based on the idea that the country will never be able to rid itself of sectarian and ethnic polarization that was encouraged under the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and used by the US-led administration of the country after the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.
This system – which is basically an unofficial quota system - was used to put together an interim government after 2003. The religious and ethnic background of would-be politicians in the interim leadership was based on demographics and the quota system was used to keep the peace and to maintain a balance between all the different, and often competing and conflicted, ethnic and religious factions. Although the quota system was never based in law, it has continued to be used in Iraqi politics today. What often happens is that this quota principle leads to supposedly independent institutions being hamstrung, or dead locked.
The latter scenario – where the three major groups continue to run the country based on the ethnic and sectarian quota system – presupposes the Shiite Muslim alliance sticking together. That is the State of Law coalition, headed by al-Maliki, which currently runs the country, which also includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, led by Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
“Realities on the ground mean that no prime minister can be chosen without the approval of the Shiite Muslim parties,” says one senior Shiite Muslim politician Jamal Al-Wakil. “So it’s highly likely the future Prime Minister will be Shiite,” he concludes.
However there are deep splits in the Shiite Muslim alliance so coming to some kind of agreement will be tough.
Even more divided at the moment are the country’s Sunni Muslim politicians. In previous elections they gathered together under former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Scenario One imagines that, when it comes to the formation of the next government, these parties will unite to back their candidate for Prime Minister.
The same is expected of the Iraqi Kurdish parties in Parliament – this group is fairly stable in Baghdad despite any disagreements the constituent parties might have back home up north, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In this scenario analysts envisage al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition winning a simple majority.
Given al-Maliki’s unpopularity, the coalition would find it difficult to win a majority all by itself. In this case it would need to seek allies from among the smaller Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim parties.
Al-Maliki is expected to try and cosy up to the National Reform Trend headed by former Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the Islamic Virtue Party, or Fadhila, headed by controversial Najaf-based cleric, Mohammed Musa al-Yaqoubi. He will most likely also approach the Shiite Muslim militia, League of the Righteous.
The League of the Righteous is an armed group, led by another Shiite cleric Qais al-Ghazali, a high ranking, former aide to Muqtada al-Sadr until 2004, that split from the Sadrists when they disarmed in 2007; the League did not want to disarm and over recent years the two groups have become more and more estranged. In these elections, the League of Righteous is running for political office for the first time.
It also seems likely that al-Maliki will approach smaller Sunni Muslim groups like the White Iraqiya and Free Iraqiya parties, which have broken away from the main Iraqiya opposition bloc over the past few years.
There have been recent occasions when these Sunni Muslim politicians have supported moves by the Shiite Muslim Prime Minister.
“The coalition governments that formed over the past eight years have proved ineffective and incapable,” says Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani, a former member of the State of Law bloc. “Any new government should be formed according to a political majority.”
If al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc succeeds in cobbling together a ruling coalition like this, then it is also likely that other big parties will need to be more open to negotiating with the Prime Minister. If other Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim or Iraqi Kurdish parties want to see members in high ministerial positions or if they want to make any political gains, then they won’t have a choice but to do this. Otherwise they will simply need to form an opposition front.
The third scenario focuses on the past few years’ of disintegration and disagreement inside the various political blocs and alliances and suggests that new alliances will be formed on the basis of common political objectives, rather than on ethnic or sectarian grounds.
If this happens it will do away with the unofficial ethnic and sectarian quota system that Iraqi politics often labour under.
And this step towards democracy is not as unlikely as it sounds. The Shiite Muslim alliance has been disintegrating and two major components of it are competing in national elections separately from their former running mate, al-Maliki. The Sunni Muslim parties are riven by antipathies and argument and have been for some time.
It is only Iraq’s Kurds that will continue to stick together. Although Iraqi Kurdish parties saw the balance of power change in their own region, it is more than likely they will continue to present a united front in Baghdad, probably mainly because of Arab versus Kurdish issues such as oil revenues, the federal budget and the disputed territories.
Last year’s provincial elections saw several non-sectarian political alliances formed around Iraq.
One need only look at Baghdad’s local authority to see how this scenario could work out. In this area al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won 20 seats, which made them the overall winners in the capital province. However two other major Shiite Muslim groups – the Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Council – formed alliances with two Sunni Muslim blocs - the United party and Iraqiya – to form a majority under the title “Alliance For Baghdad”. As a result this non-sectarian alliance also holds the top two jobs in Baghdad’s local government.
No matter which scenario does eventually play out in Iraq, there is one thing that most analysts would agree upon and that most Iraqi voters probably expect: that no matter who leads the next government, it will take some time before it can be formed. Negotiations will probably take months, as they did after the last federal elections.
Another thing that is clear: whoever ends up sitting in the Prime Minister’s seat will not necessarily be the politician who got the most votes, It will be the politician who is best able to negotiate, who can persuade Shiite Muslim parties that he is competent to hold the job, convince Iraq’s Kurds that they will be given their due and that their outstanding issues will be resolved and assure Iraq’s Sunni Muslims that they will not be marginalized.