Iraq is set for another round of provincial elections in April 2013. After a confusing run in the last voting in 2009, Moqtada al-Sadr is hoping to bounce back with a strong showing throughout the country. In preparation for that he has announced primaries to pick candidates for his party, and increased his rhetoric against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an attempt to differentiate himself from the government. This is setting up a competition between the premier’s State of Law list and the Sadrists for control of the Shiite vote next year.
In the last provincial elections in 2009, the Sadrists ran a disorganized campaign. Moqtada al-Sadr said that his followers would not run on their own list, but would instead support independents. He didn’t say who those parties were until right before the election. As a result of this confused strategy, the Sadrists had mixed results. They gained more seats then they had before in 2005, but also lost the governorship of Maysan, and were out polled in their base, Sadr City, by Maliki’s party. Sadr is hoping to make up for those mistakes in the new round of balloting.
The Sadrists appear to be following a two-step strategy to build up their base before the next election. First, in April 2012, they announced primaries across Iraq’s provinces to decide who their candidates would be. In Karbala, that process happened in August as the movement opened 45 voting centers across the province, and selected 43 candidates. The Sadrists were the only party to conduct such polls making them at least on face value the most democratic in the country. This was a good tactic to get their followers involved in the political process early on, and give their candidates an image of legitimacy amongst the public.
|Sadr and PM Maliki will be competing for the Shiite vote in the 2013 provincial elections (AIN)
The second tactic Sadr has followed is to set himself apart from the current government even though his followers are important members of it. First, the Sadrists in parliament have champion anti-corruption as one of their selling points. Recently, when a major arms deal with Russia went awry, the Sadr bloc in the legislature was at the forefront demanding an investigation. It even went as far as to accuse the prime minister’s son of involvement in the corruption. Sadrist parliamentarians have also accused Maliki of giving land to his political allies in return for their support. Sadr himself has spoken out against graft and theft within the administration. One of those statements about the Russian arms deal invoked the anger of the prime minister who lashed out publicly against the cleric. Maliki called him a hypocrite, saying one thing and doing another. The Sadr movement immediately responded by holding demonstrations in Baghdad, Najaf, Kahn Bani Saad in Diyala province, Hillah in Babil, Kut in Wasit, and Karbala over several days in mid-December. Again, Sadr was attempting to rally his followers in these protests, point out the flaws in Maliki’s rule, and create a populist image. He has been doing this for quite some time. He has often spoken out against Maliki, and even dabbled in the no confidence move against the prime minister, which occurred earlier in the year. At the same time, Sadr has only been willing to go so far in these actions. His followers have the most ministries in the government, and when push has come to shove, have remained some of the strongest supporters of Maliki. Still, posturing is an important element of politics, and Sadr has been working hard at that for over a year in preparation for the provincial elections.
|Sadrists protesting against Maliki in Sadr City, Baghdad, Dec. 11, 2012 (AIN)
The Sadrists have emerged as the only real challenger to Maliki’s State of Law with the Shiite electorate. The Supreme Council has fallen by the wayside, and the smaller parties have not made much headway. Sadr is hoping to take advantage of that situation, and do much better in next year’s voting than he did in 2009. He has ramped up his campaign machine in anticipation. In the coming month, more can be expected, most likely taking the form of increased rhetoric against the prime minister, and calls for better governance and services. This will be an uphill battle as Maliki has control of the majority of provincial councils, which he can use to distribute patronage to voters. He is also in the middle of a heated battle with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in an attempt to forge a more nationalist image, which plays well with many Iraqi Arabs regardless of their sect. Sadr is also limited by his sectarian image and violent past. Still, the Sadrists are now in a largely two party race for votes in much of the country, and therefore believe that they can pick up some seats, and expand their base. The results will be very interesting to look at to see whether they were successful in these efforts.
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