Iraq recently completed its 2013 provincial elections. There was a slight delay as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held off on the voting in Ninewa and Anbar until June for what he claimed were security reasons. Those have now been completed, and all the provinces that cast ballots have new governments. This year’s governorate level vote was quite different than the last ones held in 2009 when the premier’s State of Law swept up most of the south and Baghdad. Now he is being challenged by his erstwhile allies the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrists. The Sunni vote was splintered amongst several different parties as well. Here are the thoughts and opinions of several different Iraq experts on this year’s election.
Harith Hasan al-Qarawee is a scholar of political science. He currently is an editor at the Al-Mutawassit Institution for Reading and Cultural Exchange in Italy. He is the author of Imagining the Nation: Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-political Conflict in Iraq. He tweets at
The vote and the subsequent process of provincial administrations formation indicate that Maliki is facing strong Shi’a rivals who are ready to go as far as creating cross-sectarian alliances to limit his power. The fact that his party was excluded from the administrations in Baghdad and Basra, two strategically and demographically important provinces, is very telling. If this pattern will continue in the general election, next year, his chances to secure a third term are very limited. Unlike the pre-voting predictions and despite the mobilization process in their areas, Sunni voters are still divided on regional, tribal, and ideological lines. [Speaker Osama Nujafi’s] Mutahidun did not emerge as the dominant Sunni list, although it is now the most powerful coalition. While sectarian factors will be more prominent in the general election, the fact that Nujafi and other powerful Sunni leaders need to maintain good relations with Sadr and Hakim to oust Maliki, could de-escalate sectarian discourse. This very much depends on whether Sadr and Hakim would keep their alliance (I think they would) and whether Maliki would consolidate his convergence with Deputy Premier Mutlaq, Karbouli [head of the Solution Movement], and some Sunni tribal leaders, entering the election in a united cross-sectarian slate. There are some good indicators that the general election would not be merely a Sunni-Shi’a competition but, instead, a new dynamic of Pro-Maliki vs. Anti-Maliki (not necessarily before the election) forces would emerge.
Kamal Chomani is a columnist for the Kurdistan Tribune who previously was an editor for Lvin Magazine. He tweets at @KamalChomani
Iraq's provincial elections showed some new coalitions, especially the Ammar Hakim-Moqtada al-Sadr coalition, which was a strong blow to the face of Maliki, yet Maliki appears the winner. The Hakim-Sadr coalition couldn't satisfy the Kurds to put an end to Maliki's dreams. The Kurds rescued Maliki from the scenarios that Hakim and Sadr had in mind. Now that Maliki and [Kurdish President] Barzani’s relations are getting better, in addition to his very good relations with Talabani, and the KDP-PUK refusal to enter into a Hakim-Sadr coalition against Maliki, Maliki is as successful as he was before. Losing some local governments, Baghdad for example, hurt Maliki but it doesn't change anything for now until the Provincial Law that was recently passed by parliament is put into practice. The local governments do not have sufficient power now to enable the political parties to use them in political conflicts, that's why Maliki doesn't seem happy with the new provincial law. One interesting outcome of the provincial elections was forming local government in which most of them were either pro-Maliki in a majoritarian vote or anti-Maliki in coalitions of different blocs. Forming local government in majority votes should be taken as a new development. Though losing Basra and Baghdad cannot be compensated by Maliki, keeping control of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala has symbolic importance. All in all, the provincial elections showed that Maliki cannot be easily defeated. He will be the one in the upcoming general elections that can continue his popularity in the major cities. For the Kurds in the KRG, it is also important to question the KRG's local government's legitimacy. It has been years since the local governments of Irbil, Duhok, and Sulaymaniya have expired. The two ruling parties have delayed election there 5 times. Ultimately the provincial elections were supposed to be held along with parliamentarian elections in September 21, 2013, but again it was delayed. The KRG always proudly talks about its democracy and stability in the region, but having no provincial elections without having any serious reasons, is an obvious violation of democratic principles.
Ramzy Mardini is an adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Lebanon. He was previously a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and the Jamestown Foundation.
Politics remains the coin of the realm in Iraq, and while sectarianism may be the dominant brand of contemporary political fashion, the machinations that have underlined the post-electoral deal making process in 2013 appears to have followed a balance-of-power logic. It is important to note that pragmatism and change ought never be underrated from occurring; anything is possible and nothing can ever be entirely discounted in Iraq. Structures and systems are not destined to remain constant, and the reiteration of the electoral process will output different political configurations over time. The most important feature is that counter-balancing behavior, not bandwagoning, appears to be dominating the political saga within Shi’a circles -- thus infusing an incentive structure for cross-sectarian alliances to emerge down the road. Indeed, should diverging political interests within the majority sect continue to harden, its spillover onto the national scene is more likely to occur. In other words, the more inward and the more intense intra-sect competition is, the better hope that Iraq’s politics will evolve in a more positive, inclusionary direction. But intra-Shi’a politics sets the national tone, and there remains powerful regional forces, both agents (e.g. Iran) and structure (e.g. Syria’s civil war) that will work to keep the Shi’a united, and thus, Iraq divided.
Reidar Visser is a historian who has studied federalism and regionalism in southern Iraq and Iraqi nationalism. He has authored Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010, and co-edited An Iraq of its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? He runs the blog Iraq and Gulf Analysis and tweets at @reidarvisser
The Iraqi provincial elections held on 20 April produced two important windows on the state of affairs in Iraqi politics. First, there are the election results themselves. Prominent features include Maliki’s relative decline, ISCI’s comeback, and the relatively modest performance of the Nujafi brothers establishing themselves as leading Sunni/secular force from Bara to Diyala, and effectively replacing Iraqiya, but losing votes spectacularly on their home turf in Ninewa when compared to the last elections in 2009. The strong decline in numbers of seats for the Maliki bloc was so marked that it prompted them to criticize the recent change from the largest remainder principle to the Sainte Lague method for allocating seats under Iraq’s proportional election system. Then there was the process of forming new local governments. During the course of that process, Maliki lost out further, showing a lack of talent for negotiating even from positions of relative strength. The most spectacular example is Basra where Maliki emerged with 16 out of 35 seats, and yet with all the advantages of incumbency did not manage to secure the mere two extra councilor votes required to secure the governorship. Other potentially ominous developments for Maliki include the formation of majority governments against him in places like Baghdad, Diyala, and Wasit, with the two first featuring Sunnis and Shiites joining against him (Nujafi, Sadr and ISCI). Recent council formations in Anbar and Ninewa seem to restore some of the prestige the Nujafi brothers lost in the vote count since they are now a key player in coalition governments in both places. Finally, it is worth noting that despite the conflagration of tensions in the region, the general atmosphere of these elections was decidedly Iraqi, often removed from regional tensions altogether. The last months have featured Iraqi Shiites quarreling among themselves, and Sunnis talking about the need to distance themselves from the Syrian situation. This reality marks a clear contrast to punditry on the region, which cannot seem to get enough of the theme of transnational Sunni-Shiite confrontation.
Ahmed Ali is an Iraq research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Before he was a Middle East analyst at Georgetown University, and a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He tweets at @IraqShamel
The provincial elections were more than a rehearsal for the national elections. They proved that local issues and local figures are as important, and in some cases even more critical in deciding voters' choices than national issues and figures. The outcomes of the elections represent a challenge for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki given the under-performance of his State of Law Alliance. In light of the results, he is now calculating his options for the national elections. Meanwhile, his main rivals, the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, consolidated gains that will be important as they contemplate challenging a third Maliki term. Government-formation in Baghdad and in Diyala offer clues about how an anti-Maliki movement can materialize. Moreover, the results showed that the political leadership of the Iraqi Shi'a and Iraqi Sunnis is still contested despite Prime Minister Maliki's consolidation of power, and the ongoing protests by the Iraqi Sunnis. Political groups tested their popularity in the elections, and now they are self-evaluating their performance in preparation for the 2014 elections.
Stephen Wicken is a Middle East research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. He was previously a teaching fellow in comparative foreign policy at Yale. He tweets at
There were a number of surprises that emerged from the provincial elections: ISCI's resurgence, the rebuff to Maliki, and the failure of Mutahidun to capitalize on the momentum of the anti-government protests, to name but a few. Above any single development, to me the elections were a reminder that Iraqi politics tends to reward pragmatism more than ideology. The results of the voting are really only half the story: the ability to make governmental alliances is almost as important as appealing to, or organizing, voters. The political balance is very much in flux as a result of some shrewd moves by some experienced figures. The next year will be fascinating to watch.