After Iraq’s elections
Iraq’s post-election period is expected to bring neither security nor order to the country, writesSalah Nasrawi
Many Iraqis viewed this week’s parliamentary elections as their last hope and went to cast their votes even though they were not particularly optimistic. Meanwhile, the violence in the country showed no signs of abating in the days leading up to the elections, with gunmen killing candidates and bombers assaulting election commission offices and campaign gatherings.
Millions of Iraqis voted to decide the 328 members of the country’s parliament, which will in turn choose a president and a prime minister. Some 9,000 candidates stood for election, and preliminary results are expected to emerge next week.
Pre-ballot initial estimates indicated that the elections would see a significant turnout.Voting for Iraqis living abroad kicked off on Sunday, but media outlets reported a low turn out from the 700,000 registered Iraqi expatriates.
No single bloc is expected to win a majority of the seats in the new parliament, the third since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former president Saddam Hussein.
Since Saddam’s ouster, Iraq’s politics have been dominated by ethnic and sectarian divisions. The election campaign focused on competition within the three main ethnic and religious communities: Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
The Shias were split between Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sadrist Trend and the Citizen Coalition of cleric Ammar Al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq.
The Sunnis were split between parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi’s Muttahidoon List and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq’s Al-Arabiya List.
Al-Maliki is eying a third term in office despite a veritable maelstrom of protests, security deterioration and massive accusations of corruption and incompetence. He has been criticised as after eight years under his rule Iraq is cracking even further as the ever-increasing strain of the post-US occupation transition undermines both the state and society.
Both Sunni Arab leaders and the Kurds have already signalled that they do not trust Al-Maliki and are unwilling to submit to his centralist and autocratic tendencies.
The Sunnis have been protesting against exclusion and marginalisation by his government and demanding it address their grievances.
The protests were part of a larger uprising that later grew into an armed rebellion across the Sunni-dominated provinces. In December last year, the army moved into Anbar province to quash the insurgency, but more than five months later many parts of the vast province are still under rebel control.
The Kurds have been engaged in a bitter dispute with Al-Maliki over the centralisation of power and distribution of national wealth. As relations between the country’s Kurds and Al-Maliki’s government have worsened, some Kurdish leaders have started calling for Kurdish independence.
Many Shia religious and political leaders are also frustrated with Al-Maliki’s ineffectiveness, and they are urging their supporters to search for a new leader. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Iraqi Shias’ most revered cleric, has been showing increasing signs of dissatisfaction with Al-Maliki and has quietly been calling for a replacement.
On Saturday, Ayatollah Basheer Al-Najafi, one of four prominent clerics in the Najaf Shia seminary, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, which forbade the re-election of Al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki’s power base among the Shia may still be strong, but his credentials are looking weaker as his behaviour has become increasingly autocratic. Judged by his performance, Al-Maliki has failed in almost everything from restoring security and peace to the war-ravaged country to curbing corruption and providing services.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since he assumed office in 2006, and millions have gone into exile or are in internal displacement though he commands an army of about a million soldiers and police with a US$20 billion budget.
During his tenure, corruption has become endemic and bribes, graft, extortion, and blackmailing have become a way of life. Public services such as electricity, water, sewage, education and healthcare have seriously deteriorated because of corruption, mismanagement and the lack of investment and maintenance.
Iraq’s economy has been wracked by chaos, with the country heavily relying on imports of almost all its needs of consumer and basic goods.
Though Al-Maliki’s government has received more than US$700 billion in oil revenues since it took office eight years ago, the country’s current account deficit reached 35 per cent this year.
Al-Maliki’s government has been functioning without a budget and with major projects threatened with closure and foreign companies threatening to leave. Al-Maliki has been banking on sales from petroleum to oil his government and security machines and to subdue his political rivals and buy loyalty.
The final word on who will be Iraq’s next prime minister may not be known for months, making many Iraqis fear that with so much power in his hands Al-Maliki may try to uproot the opposition in his attempt for a third term.
His election trajectory is clear, and he will try to gather 165 members in the new parliament to declare that he has a majority of votes in order to allow him to form a government.
Among the most serious concerns of his critics is that he might try to influence the balloting and change the outcome of the elections in his favour in order to get the largest share of the votes.
The Iraqi media have been reporting that Al-Maliki has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy votes and build alliances with small groups, offering government jobs, houses and offering other incentives.
He has also sought to manipulate the country’s electoral commission, rendering some of its officials submissive to his orders. There is concern that as the country’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces Al-Maliki may resort to forcing the military and the security forces to vote in his favour.
Although his re-election is questionable, analysts warn that disasters would befall Iraq if Al-Maliki were re-elected. They say the damage of a third Al-Maliki term could be irrevocable.
For instance, Al-Maliki will most certainly continue his marginalisation of the Sunni Arabs, which will in turn drive more Sunnis into the insurgency.
One result of the Sunni radicalisation is that Iraq will remain gripped in sectarian turmoil with immense regional consequences and tumultuous relations with its neighbours.
The already stalemated relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government over the export of oil and disputed territories will take a turn for the worse and the Kurds may opt to move further away from Baghdad.
Al-Maliki’s re-election will further strain relations with other Shia groups and could trigger internecine Shia fighting.
However, the results of the elections are not predictable, and though the Iraqis may have wanted accountability and change it’s too soon to tell which way that will manifest itself.
What is clear, however, is that like in the two previous elections since Saddam’s downfall most Iraqis have voted for their ethnic and sectarian interests and have not cast their ballots thinking about the national picture.
This could mean that the elections are a surreal exercise because they will only reproduce the same old faces and recycle the ill-fated political process that has already pushed Iraq into stagnation.
As a result, Iraq will become increasingly polarised: between Al-Maliki and his rivals; between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds; between the devout Shias and the secularists; and between Sunni politicians and insurgents.
Worse still, if Al-Maliki tries to outmanoeuver his rivals to stay in power he will create geographical and political divisions that will further tear the social fabric and erode the state structure.
After 2010’s inconclusive elections, communal leaders spent ten months of bargaining before they reached an agreement on a coalition government. The winners in this year’s elections also have a lot of horse-trading to do in order to build a partnership of necessity.
This is how Iraq will be caught once again in a democratic vicious circle. But this time round Iraq’s post-elections deadlock will be more ominous than few will have foreseen.
Unless Iraq’s feuding communities remove their red lines and work closely together to rebuild the state and society on the bases of equality and justice, Iraq will continue rattling along with a high possibility of a catastrophic civil war.