x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

With results due, Iraq anticipates a post-election fight

The result of Iraq's election is unlikely to lessen the sectarian divides that afflict the country, Kirk Sowell writes, with the Shia majority and Nouri Al Maliki expected to prevail.

Iraq held parliamentary elections on April 30 under the worst possible conditions, with an empowered Sunni insurgency holding its own in wide swathes of the country. The political environment was just as bad, with Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister, running his reelection campaign by portraying himself as a Shia champion against the insurgency.

Among Sunni Arab blocs, campaign rhetoric reflected extreme polarisation. Speaker Osama Al Nujayfi’s Mutahidun, the largest Sunni bloc, described Mr Al Maliki’s counterinsurgency campaign as an all-out war against Sunni Arabs, warning that Mr Al Maliki’s reelection would result in “genocide” against Sunnis.

Saleh Al Mutlaq’s Arab Coalition, by contrast, framed the Kurds and Mr Al Nujayfi’s promotion of an autonomous Sunni region as the greatest threat to Iraq. Former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s predominately Sunni but cross-sectarian Nationalist Coalition took an anti-Maliki but more moderate line than Mr Al Nujayfi.

The Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has not helped by taking an excessive period of time to announce election results, creating greater uncertainty.

While some of IHEC’s problems can be related to difficult conditions in Sunni Arab areas, sufficient vote counts have been completed in Shia areas for several days, leading some parties to leak results to play up their vote.

Nonetheless, Iraqi media citing local election officials have published enough of the initial results to have a rough sense of how Shia Iraqis have voted, and it is their vote that primarily determines who heads the next government.

At present, Mr Al Maliki appears likely to have 90-100 seats, slightly more than the 89 he had in 2010 (this parliament has 328 rather than 325 seats). The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)-led Citizen’s Bloc appears to have 40-45, while Sadrists should end up with 30-35.

These results will broadly match the results from last year’s provincial elections in proportional terms for ISCI and the Sadrists, while Mr Al Maliki’s party is sweeping up seats won last year by a large number of small parties. Despite the military’s poor performance, Mr Maliki has control of state media, and with military officers parroting his line even on television channels he does not control, he has been able to portray himself as a defender of the Shia against Sunni jihadists and nationalist insurgents, who despite their disparate aims are associated in the popular mind.

Moreover, Mr Al Maliki’s government can now claim some real progress on public services, especially electricity, which has finally came on strong over the past several months. Mr Al Maliki has also benefited from divisions among his opponents. There are three cross-sectarian secular blocs running in Shia provinces, the Civil Alliance, the Iraq Coalition and Mr Allawi’s Nationalist Coalition. None is likely to win even a single seat in at least six or seven provinces. This is partly because each province is a district and in parliamentary elections each one (except Baghdad) has fewer seats, thus raising the minimum needed for a seat. Additionally, the new election law increased the number of minimum votes needed. So despite these three having few ideological differences, leadership disagreements mean secularists will largely be wiped out in the Shia south.

Mr Al Maliki still faces a tough fight ahead for a third term though, since the 70 or so Shia seats held by hard-core opponents can block the formation of a new government given Mr Al Maliki’s need for their support.

Iran more highly prizes Shia unity than Mr Al Maliki himself, and a substantial number of seats within Mr Al Maliki’s SLC will be held by the Badr Organisation and the Dawa Party-Iraq Organisation, both Iranian proxies.

Furthermore, the wing of the Kurdish alliance made up of the Sulaymania-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is dependent on Iran (its finances are heavily dependent on cross-border trade that Iran controls). Tehran has long sought to maintain an alliance between the Shia and Kurdish factions it backs, and it could throw its backing behind an alternative Shia Islamist for prime minister.

The role of the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, then, will be indirect until the Shia bloc sorts itself out. If the Kurds are unified against Mr Al Maliki that will stiffen opposition to him, but if and when Mr Al Maliki steps aside, the superficial unity holding together his rivals will dissolve. And once the Shia do coalesce around a nominee, that candidate will likely begin the negotiation process with the simple majority needed to form a government, so Kurdish and Sunni Arab leverage will be slight. (Contrary to the widespread belief that two-thirds is needed to elect a president, the constitution allows a simple majority vote on the second ballot, so 165 out of 328 is all that is needed)

In the meantime, parliament has yet to pass the 2014 budget, blocked primarily over provisions related to Kurdistan’s oil exports. At present Mr Al Nujayfi is sticking with his Kurdish allies, and Masud Barzani, Kurdistan’s president, is speaking firmly about the need for “real partnership” as a precondition to a new government.

But what we may call the “regionalist coalition” is outnumbered, and with the budget delay freezing projects across the country, taking a hard line could stick Mr Barzani and the Kurds with a new government with a centralist orientation very much not to their liking.

Kirk H Sowell is a Jordan-based political risk analyst and the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics

On Twitter: @uticensisrisk