Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Look At Iraq’s 2014 Election, Interview With Reidar Visser

In April 2014 Iraq held its latest parliamentary elections. The vote was all about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His State of Law walked away with by far the most seats, 95 in total, while his rivals only got around 20-30 seats each. In the months that follow Maliki and his supporters and detractors will hold a series of protracted negotiations to form a new Iraqi government. To help explain the results and the possible outcomes of the balloting is Reidar Visser, a noted Iraq historian. He runs two blogs Iraq and Gulf Analysis and historiae.org, and has written and co-authored three books, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq, An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?, and A Responsible End?: The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010. He can be followed on Twitter @reidarvisser.
Maliki's State of Law came away as the big winner in the 2014 elections (BBC)

1. Maliki’s State of Law walked away with 95 seats in this year’s election. Approximately how many other parties are aligned with him right now and around how many seats will that give him?

Maliki’s potential support base outside State of Law can be conceptualized as a set of concentric circles with increasingly weaker loyalty to him. Immediately outside State of Law with 95 seats, and with good chances of future loyalty, is a stratum of a couple of deputies with a history of close ties to the State of Law, who have continued to maintain friendly relations with Maliki despite running separately. They include Haytham al-Jibburi of the Kafaat & Jamahir movement and Ali Taleb Abd al-Hasan of the Solidarity in Iraq movement, a party affiliated with the Dhi Qar cleric Muhammad Mahdi al-Nasiri who is considered pro-Maliki, and Ali Subhi al-Maliki of the Just State movement (who had Maliki’s picture on his own election poster). Subsequent to the publication of the results, politicians from the two first of these movements went on to claim they had formally enrolled in the State of Law alliance, as did two deputies from a local list in Najaf with a somewhat more secular profile. This segment also includes one seat for the Sadiqun party considered close to the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, although it is noteworthy that this movement, despite much hype about it in Western media, failed to make much of an impression on the Iraqi electorate. Nothing is set in stone, though. Another deputy from Kafaat & Jamahir, former interior minister Jawad al-Bolani, first reportedly joined the pro-[Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq] ISCI Muwatin bloc before subsequently joining Maliki, bringing the total of his State of Law bloc to around 101 seats plus the 1 Asaib Ahl al-Haq seat (which probably no one else will have anything to do with anyway).

Beyond these 102 deputies, I think the loyalties of the parties considered close or potentially close to Maliki is far more open to negotiation. Despite some points of contact in the past, there has also been periods of friction with Maliki. This includes the 6 seats of the Shia Islamist Fadhila, the one seat of the Tanzim al-Dakhil branch of the Daawa (they broke acrimoniously with Maliki in August 2009 when they joined [Iraqi National Alliance] INA ahead of the 2010 general election), and the 6 seats of Ibrahim al-Jaafari (whose role as unofficial PM candidate of INA and thus a challenger to Maliki in 2010 is often forgotten). That’s 15 extra seats, but their alliance with Maliki is no more of a foregone conclusion than the case is with respect to some of the smaller secular and religious minority parties such as the Iraq Coalition (5 seats) or the two Anbar lists (3 plus 2 seats) often cited as potential Maliki allies.

2. There was some talk before the vote about how many seats the prime minister would need to win to give him the upper hand in the government formation talks. Do you believe there was such a tipping point and if so did he achieve that amount?

Maliki would have needed closer to 120 seats in order to truly achieve the upper hand. With the results that materialized, Maliki will need to compromise with at least one (and probably two) of his main opponents – the Kurds, Sadr, Hakim, Nujafi or Allawi.

3. For the last several years Prime Minister Maliki has talked about forming a majority government. Do you think that’s possible after the 2014 elections, and would it make a more effective administration?

I think the concept of a political majority would be good for Iraq if it was attainable. In 2010, Allawi and Maliki could have achieved it if they hadn’t been strong personal enemies. This year, I don’t think the numbers will add up but they are tantalizingly close to the required majority and I fear Maliki’s hubris will make him expend a lot of energy trying to reach such a majority anyway. It should be remembered that even in the previous Iraqi parliament, State of Law deputies would frequently talk about a “political majority” in contexts when they were very far from achieving this. One potential variation of the theme would be Maliki joining with the Kurds, which could be sufficient basis for a majority. The only thing that would keep them united, though, would be agreement on a third Maliki term. Indeed, most of Maliki’s rhetoric in favor of a political majority has focused on criticism of Kurdish independent oil policy. Still, the possibility of Maliki turning around and offering some concessions for a guarantee of a third term should not be ruled out.

4. Maliki’s stated opponents, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Ahrar/Liberals, Ammar Hakim’s Mowatin/Citizen’s Alliance, Speaker Osama Nujafi’s Mutahidun/Uniters, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya/Nationalist Coalition won 138 seats between them. That would seem to give them the advantage over the prime minister, but as ever their main problem is keeping a unified stance. Do you think they have any better chance to achieve that than in 2012 when some of these same parties attempted a no confidence vote against Maliki?

The relative numerical strength of these parties vis a vis Maliki is less now than in 2012, where it may have been close to 160 out of 325 at its height – before Iran ordered the Sadrists to back down. When it comes to manipulating the segment of parties in the range from 1 to 3 deputies, Maliki probably has an advantage of incumbency compared to his enemies.
Allawi (left), Speaker Nujafi (center), Dep PM Mutlaq (right) are trying to create a Sunni Alliance (Shafaq News)

5. As a follow up to that Speaker Nujafi is talking about creating a grand Sunni alliance consisting of him, Allawi and Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq. What chance does that have of working out?

I think the chances of it working out are limited, not least because they have spent a good deal energy splitting up from the 2010 alliance. Additionally, it is unlikely to become politically relevant since Maliki’s interest in these groups mainly relates to the prospect of one of them breaking ranks with the others and then joining Maliki.

6. In a similar vein, Sadr and Hakim seem to be focusing upon reforming the National Alliance that they were part of in 2010. What do you think they hope to achieve with that?

Sadr and Hakim may have been hoping to reconstitute the Shiite alliance and then have Maliki replaced with someone they like better personally. That plan lost some of its momentum because of Maliki’s relative success in term of a good personal vote and an increase of his share of the parliament seats despite the Najaf clergy clearly sending signals about the desirability of replacing him with someone else. At the time of the election there was much talk of Tareq Najm [parliamentarian from State of Law] as a possible substitute for Maliki. Already that kind of talk has faded somewhat.

7. With every vote in Iraq there come complaints about the winners cheating. Maliki’s opponents are all claiming that he fixed the balloting one way or another, while most of the Kurdish parties are accusing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of fraud as well. Do you think there is any merit to these charges, and more importantly could they change the results if the Iraqi Election Commission takes any of them up?

A couple of points on this. I think if IHEC was as corrupt as some claim, Maliki would have got a bigger win and he would not have lost so many key allies and friends (who lost out in the personal vote). It is still unclear which way IHEC’s decision will go with respect to the complaints. They have released data from the special vote for the security forces as well as the “Baghdad belt” (where accusations of ballot-stuffing to Maliki’s advantage materialized). Questions still remain after these attempts at creating enhanced transparency. For example, in the security force vote, the Maliki vote in Diyala and the PUK vote in Sulaymaniya seem artificially high. Similarly, with respect to the “Baghdad belt” vote, IHEC has released data that show suspiciously high participation at some stations, but it has released results only at the aggregate level of the counting centers. To allay fears about ballot stuffing, it should release results for individual stations in the “Baghdad belt”, and in particular those with participation rates in the 80-95% range.

8. Quite a few prominent Iraqi parliamentarians were defeated in this year’s balloting. Can you name some of them, and do you think this points to some accountability being established in the country?

Deputies who lost their seats include Hassan al-Sunayd, Ali Shalah, Khalid al-Attiya, Yasin Majid, Walid al-Hilli, Ihsan al-Awwadi, Sami al-Askari and Izzat al-Shabandar from the Maliki camp. Similarly Nassar al-Rubayyie and Maha al-Duri, from the Sadrist list, lost their seats.

This is the beauty of the personal vote in Iraq, and, incidentally, I think, an indication of the integrity of what IHEC is doing. Using the personal vote has become the norm with 80-90% of all voters expressing a candidate preference in the materials that I have been working with. In the big cities, in particular, personal votes radically affect the ranking of the candidates, with people far down on the lists promoted to top positions through the actions of the electorates in places like Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.

9. Internal issues are only part of the picture when it comes to Iraqi politics. The United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran all have tried to play a role in the country. How might each attempt to influence the government formation process?

I think there is a real difference between these regional powers as regards their ability to micro-manage the government formation process. Iran may want to see the next Iraqi PM emerge as the result of a decision by a united Shiite alliance. It can exercise leverage to have that alliance reconstituted and in turn influence the process of PM candidate selection within the alliance. Turkey may influence the preferences of the Iraqi Kurdish parties, though it is noteworthy that in theory the Shiites can form a government without Kurdish support this time. This fact somewhat reduces Turkish leverage. Finally, the influence of Saudi Arabia is much less than the two others, and primarily relates to the precise level, intensity and sourness of discontent expressed by its friends among Iraqi Sunnis and seculars.