April 30, 2014 Iraqis head to the polls in the general election. Iraq’s last few elections have all provided surprises, and this one looks to be no different. In 2009, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new State of Law (SOL) party swept the south and Baghdad in the provincial elections building upon his success against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra, Maysan, and Baghdad, his military campaign against insurgents in Mosul, and challenging the Kurds over the disputed territories the year before. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) was the big loser as the voters punished it for its poor performance after being the big winner in 2005. Then in 2010 it appeared that Maliki would again have a big win, but was surpassed by one seat by the Iraqi National Movement. Maliki had to resort to the courts to get a ruling to allow him to put together a coalition after the voting instead of letting the winner with the most ballots do it. He then played upon the divisions within the INM, and the Kurdish parties’ fear of the INM to obtain a second term. In the 2013 provincial level balloting it was State of Law that lost seats for its lack of good governance. More importantly the Sadrists and Supreme Council formed cross sectarian coalitions to shut SOL out of some new local governments.
Most Iraq watchers now seem to believe that the prime minister will get the most seats in parliament, and then go through a very long process of negotiations that could drag out for up to a year, and ensure himself another four years in office. The premier is hoping that his Shiite base will come out for him out of fear of the growing insurgency, and give him a plurality of votes. He will then be able to play upon the splits within the Sunni parties to ally with Deputy Premier Salah al-Mutlaq. If that gives him momentum the history of Iraqi politics is for the other parties to jump on board to assure themselves positions within the new government.
An alternative scenario could play out however. Last year ISCI was able to cut into Maliki’s base, and are hoping to repeat that again. It has portrayed itself as a nationalist party that has the support of the religious establishment in Najaf. The Sadrists’ Ahrar bloc believes that it can maintain its alliance with the Supreme Council that it forged in the 2013 elections. If they get anything near the number of seats of Maliki it will be a free for all for to create the majority necessary for a new government. The two Shiite religious parties could play upon the mutual hatred of the prime minister felt by other lists such as Speaker Osama Nujafi’s Mutahidun and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to counter SOL. In previous years Maliki has been able to play off the differences of his opponents, but this year their opposition to him could be strong enough to actually unite them. This might give the prime minister a 50-50 chance to stay in power. The problem is that it will be months before the actual winners are determined, and in the meantime the status quo will remain. It should also be noted that if the anti-Maliki factions prevail they will not be able to form a majority government that does not include SOL. The courts are under the sway of Maliki and he will likely turn to them to overturn any coalition that does not include him.
A third possibility is that the government formation process becomes so deadlocked that Maliki will give up the premiership, but demand that SOL retain the position. That would require a new candidate within the list to be found. Besides Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb, who is a rival to Maliki, the party lacks other prominent members. Then again, the prime minister was a middling official in Dawa before he assumed the top spot in 2006, so there is a precedent of someone emerging from the wings to assume power. Deputy Premier Hussein Shahristani of the Independents could be another alternative as well.
Last there is the role of outside powers. The Obama administration appears to be trying to re-engage with Iraq due to the rising violence. It will likely try to play a neutral role however, and just ensure that the process is as fair as possible. That’s not true of the other players. Turkey has gone back and forth on Maliki, but is allied with Mutahidun and the KDP. It could push the two to work together over their opposition to the prime minister. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are against Maliki as well, but they also oppose Shiite rule overall, which is a dead end given the ethnosectarian quota system that the ruling parties believe in. That will limit their influence. Finally, Iran might play a pivotal role. It may back Maliki to maintain the status quo in Iraq, because it is more concerned about the fighting in Syria right now. Then again, it could be angry with Maliki for playing divide and conquer with the Kurdish and other Shiite parties that have close ties to Tehran, which has led to political instability in Iraq. That could be a game changer if it throws its weight behind the Supreme Council and Sadrists during negotiations for a new government. Given these factors it appears that Iraq’s 2014 elections will have many more uncertainties than givens.