Friday, March 5, 2010

Lessons Learned From 2009 That Apply To The 2010 Iraqi Elections

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
Shiite Provinces:
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%

Sunni Provinces:
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


Jason said...

I love the pre-game speculation as much as anybody, but from what I can gather, Iraq is headed into unknown territory. But that also makes it exciting!

I do wish Iraq could have completely thrown off this list voting system in favor of districts each voting for their own representatives. How votes will be counted under this new "open list" is even more inexplicable than last time. So you can vote for either a list or for an individual candidate - how do you weight those against each other? Or do you vote twice, first for the list, then for a particular member on the list to determine their ranking? I can't understand it at all, and I'm no slouch. It only makes sense as a system to protect incumbents tied together by crony politics from fresh, new upstarts.

Alex Bratt said...

To Jason: First I am glad that Iraqis abandoned the closed list and accepted the open list system as much more transparent and democratic.

Since I am from Czech Republic and Europe we are more accustomed to this kind of voting systems.
Here is how it works - Voter principally choose a political party but there is an option for him to also choose a most preferable individual candidate within the same party. If one choose only a party, the party gets so many votes as is seats in the distric and these votes go to the candidates according to their number in the candidate list. But if one selects a party and candidates, the individual candidates gets the vote (regardless of the order which they appear on the list). If voter selected less individual candidates than there is seats, the rest of the votes goes to the party candidates according to their number in the candidate list.

Sorry for the clumsy explanation...
And yes it does protect incumbents.

BTW: Great blog, I for examble prefer it before Thomas E. Ricks one.

Don Cox said...

I think the party list system is very bad. I no longer vote in elections for the European Parliament, because I don't want to vote for a party.

We should vote for a person who will represent the voters of a district, and not simply be a puppet of some party organisation. A good MP will vote according to his judgement, not as he is told by party bosses.

If you have no local MP, who do you go to if you have a problem?

Joel Wing said...


Here's a rundown of the election law and how seats are distributed.

Jason said...

Thanks for the link, Joel.

I'm with you, Don. I don't think I could ever bring myself to vote for a party without knowing who my personal representatives would be. I would feel like my vote was entirely too disconnected from government to have any meaning. You would inevitably be supporting people that got on lists due to nepotism and corruption, and others with whom you disagree. (Imagine, for example, if a vote for John Tanner (my local Dem representative) also helped elect folks like Charlie Wrangle and John Murtha) And there would be no one in government that spoke specifically for your local district.

Joel Wing said...

The list system comes from Europe and was adopted in Iraq because of the United Nations.

In 2005 Iraq had a closed list system where voters could only pick from coalitions. I don't remember whether the voting was by province or nationwide however. Each coalition would list their candidates from top to bottom, and whatever percentage they won, that number of candidates starting from the top and going down would get a seat in parliament, i.e. a list got 5 seats, the top 5 candidates would go to parliament.

The system works best when you have established parties and well known politicians. For example if that happened in the U.S. and you had a nationwide closed list voting system then the Democrats would have Obama, Biden, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, etc. at the top of their list and you would know your vote would first go to Obama and then on down their list of candidates depending upon how many seats they won.

This would work for the Kurds in Iraq because the PUK and KDP have been around for a long time, and ran Kurdistan autonomously since the Gulf War. For the other parties not so since they were all new comers.

This year Iraq has an open list system based upon the provinces where you can pick a candidate or list in the governorate that you live in. So for example in Baghdad you could pick Maliki or just vote for State of Law because he is the #1 candidate on the list for that province.

As for feeling that a specific politician represents a specific province I don't think Iraq is there yet. After being elected I don't think the public sees their politicians much at all, and they don't even show up to parliament either that much.