In 2009 Iraq held two separate elections. First was the January provincial elections where voters in fourteen of Iraq’s eighteen governorates elected new local officials, and then in July the three provinces of Kurdistan held balloting for its regional parliament. Both of those elections hold important lessons for Iraq’s parliamentary vote that started on March 4, 2010 and will be completed March 7.
The January provincial elections set several trends in Iraqi politics that will likely carry over into 2010. First, the voters punished the ruling parties in every province. Many interpreted this as a return to Iraqi nationalism, and a rejection of the sectarian parties that had taken power in 2005, but that’s not entirely true. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list for example, led by his Dawa Party, was considered the big winner in the vote as they won pluralities across southern Iraq and Baghdad, but even they were kicked out of office in Karbala, the only province that Dawa controlled after the January 2005 local elections. The major reason was that the provincial councils and governors had failed to develop the local economies, provide jobs, protect the public, and were known for corruption. For instance, in Basra, the brother of the governor from the Fadhila Party, was known as the largest oil smuggler in the province, while Fadhila carried out a running war with the Sadrists and Supreme Council for control of the city using their militias. In turn, voters blamed the ruling parties reliance upon religion and ethnosectarian politics for their failure to deliver on basic needs. This could have bad consequences for Maliki’s State of Law list this year. Maliki’s party controls the nine provinces of the south, along with Baghdad. Because of the world recession, the budgets for all of Iraq’s provinces have been drastically cut the last two years. As a result, the State of Law’s promises of better services and economic development have not materialized, and the public could punish them for that at the polls.
A second trend is the fragmentation of Iraq’s large coalitions. In 2005 the country’s main parties coalesced into three blocs, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, and the Kurdish Alliance. They won control of the provinces and the parliament in the 2005 elections. Beginning in late-2008, these alliances broke apart. The first list to do so was the Accordance Front. In December 2008, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council withdrew from the alliance. In 2009 Vice President Tariq Hashemi, who had been the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest component of the Accordance Front, left and formed his own party, the Renewal. Next Maliki decided to form his own State of Law list to run in the 2009 provincial vote breaking in two the United Alliance. Finally, in the July 2009 Kurdish parliamentary vote, the Change list emerged as the main opposition party to the Kurdish Alliance. Today there are seven large lists that are likely to take the majority of seats in the new parliament.
Major Players In The 2005 Elections
United Iraqi Alliance – Made up of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Dawa Party, Sadrists, Fadhila Party. Won 128 of 275 seats in parliament.
Kurdish Alliance – Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Won 53 of 275 seats.
Iraqi Accordance Front – Iraqi Islamic Party, General Council for the People of Iraq, Iraqi National Dialogue Council. Won 44 of 275 seats.
Major Players In The 2010 Elections
State of Law – Dawa Party, Shiite Independents
Iraqi National Alliance – Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Sadrists, Fadhila Party, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari
Kurdish Alliance – Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
Iraqi National Movement/Iraqiya – Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List, Iraqi National Dialogue Front, Vice President Hashemi’s Renewal, Al-Hadbaa Party, Ahrar Party
Unity of Iraq – Interior Minister Jawad Bolani’s Constitution Party, Anbar Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha’s Awakening of Iraq and Independents
Iraqi Consensus – Iraqi Islamic Party, General Council for the People of Iraq
Change List – New Kurdish opposition party
Third, the 2010 election is likely to redistribute power within the existing Iraqi elites rather than bring about wholesale change in the ruling parties. The Western press for example, likes to note that there will be over 6,000 candidates and hundreds of parties competing in this year’s balloting, but very few of those will ever get the votes necessary to win a seat in parliament. In last year’s provincial election, not only did parties or individuals need to receive a large number of votes to win, but also the votes of those that didn’t reach this threshold were distributed amongst the winners. The results were that while 418 lists ran in the election, only 16 won, and more people voted for the 402 losers than the winners. That means that the seven large alliances will get the majority of votes and receive a place in the new ruling coalition. Most of the new parties are also secular and nationalist, and too small to win on their own. They will either end up losers in 2010 or have to join a larger list as junior partners to gain any power.
Last, voter turnout and who people support is still largely based upon ethnosectarian identity. In 2009 Shiites mostly voted for Shiites, Sunnis for Sunnis, and Kurds for Kurds. That is unlikely to change in 2010. Another pattern from last year was that Shiite participation went down, Sunni voting went up, and Kurds turned out in the same high levels. In 2005 Sunnis boycotted the provincial elections to protest the U.S. occupation. That meant in Anbar only 2% of the electorate showed up to the polls. In the governorate balloting in 2009 Sunnis voted in large numbers to make up for their lack of representation. Voter turnout in Salahaddin went from 29% in 2005 to 65% in 2009 as a result. At the same time, Shiite voting dropped, probably out of apathy due to the poor performance of their local officials. In Najaf for instance, voter participation went from 73% in 2005 to 55% in 2009. The Kurds on the other hand, continue to have the highest turnout in the country since they share many of the same interests, have not fragmented like the other large groups, and have a number of well-known politicians to choose from. In the July 2009 Kurdish parliamentary vote, 78.5% of the electorate participated. The lack of substantial issues being discussed in the run-up to the March vote may lead to another low turnout for Shiites, while Sunnis and Kurds could have higher numbers because they want to attain or maintain their current positions.
Voter Turnout: 2005 vs 2009 Provincial Elections
Babil: 71% vs 56%
Basra: ? vs 48%
Dhi Qar: 67% vs 50%
Karbala: 73% vs 60%
Maysan: 59% vs 46%
Muthanna: 61% vs 61%
Najaf: 73% vs 55%
Qadisiya: 69% vs 58%
Wasit: 66% vs 54%
Anbar: 2% vs 40%
Ninewa: 17% vs 60%
Salahaddin: 29% vs 65%
The patterns set in Iraq’s politics in 2009 will likely continue to play out into this year. Maliki is still the most popular politician in Iraq according to the latest polls, but being an incumbent will hurt him. His claim to have brought stability back to Iraq has been challenged by the 2009 bombings of Iraq’s ministries in Baghdad, and the nine provinces his State of Law controls have not been able to deliver the jobs and development that they promised due to budgetary constrains. He could still come out the winner, but only with a plurality slightly more than the runner-up. Second, the results of the election will reshuffle the lists in power, and the new ruling coalition will still be made up from the core of large parties that emerged after the fall of Saddam. Last, voter turnout will vary between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. These will all mean that whatever new government comes to power will act and look a lot like the old one. Whatever real change that happens will be the result of who becomes prime minister. If Maliki gets re-elected, there will be more deadlock in the legislature as his opponents line up to block the passage of major laws as happened in 2009. If someone else becomes prime minister that could clear the way for some laws like the oil law to be passed, but that would still be difficult due to differences amongst the major parties again pointing to more continuation of the status quo.
Aswat al-Iraq, “459 centers receive 850,000 voters in special voting – IHEC,” 3/4/10
- “VP announces new list for upcoming parliamentary elections,” 9/12/09
BBC, “Guide to Iraqi political parties,” 1/20/06
Dagher, Sam, “Basra strike against Shiite militias also about oil,” Christian Science Monitor, 4/9/08
International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Uncertain Future: Elections And Beyond,” 2/24/10
Knights, Michael and McCarthy, Eamon, “Provincial Politics in Iraq: Fragmentation or New Awakening?” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 2008
Pollack, Kenneth, “Iraq: An Elections Preview,” Brookings Institution, 3/2/10
Sly, Liz, “Kurdish opposition makes strong showing in Iraq regional elections,” Los Angeles Times, 7/27/09