Iraq: An Elections Preview

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

March 2, 2010

The Iraqi elections are wide open and it is impossible to predict a clear winner with any degree of confidence.  However, we should reserve a healthy degree of skepticism that they will solve the logjam in Baghdad quickly or completely.  Certainly, highly successful elections would be a critically important step in the right direction for Iraq and unuccessful elections could exacerbate the situation significantly.  But what appear to be the most likely scenarios will probably lead to protracted negotiations over government formation that could hamstring the functioning of the government for some time, and might well provoke renewed violence.  The new governments that would likely be the result of these scenarios could be both fragile and politically hamstrung, making it difficult for them to find their feet for some period of time.  All of this puts a premium on American assistance to Iraq’s political process to prevent negotiations from deteriorating into conflict, and prevent a new government from collapsing.

Iraqi Public Opinion
.  Iraqi public opinion remains notoriously elusive.  Iraqi political views run a wide gamut, and what Iraqis tell pollsters is often very different from what they do when they get to the voting booth.  Nevertheless, it does appear to be the case that Iraqis remain largely frustrated with their political leadership (but not with their political system) and, if they truly had their druthers, many (perhaps most) seem ready to get rid of the entire political leadership and start again from scratch in the hope of cultivating a new leadership.  The Iraqi people mostly remain frustrated with the corruption, frustration, fecklessness and incompetence of virtually all of their leaders. 

However, very important blocs of voters remain deeply committed to particular parties or leaders—some of whom are badly discredited with the rest of the electorate.  This adds to the unpredictability of the elections.  Many Iraqis may hate the leadership collectively, but since they are so committed to certain members of it, may vote exactly the same as they did in 2005 despite their general desire for a radical break from the 2005-2009 patterns.

.  Some recent polling suggests that Ayad ‘Allawi’s secular, nationalist Iraqiyya party will garner a plurality, winning perhaps 30-35 percent of the Council of Representatives (CoR) seats.  On the other hand, many Western officials in Baghdad strongly believe that the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) of the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) will win, picking up a similar 30-35 percent, and moreover that ISCI will come out ahead of the Sadrists.  Adding to the confusion, many reporters in Baghdad—and many Iraqis—seem to think that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Rule of Law coalition, built around his Da’wa party, will prevail, again with 30-35 percent of the vote.  Even some of the Prime Minister’s opponents believe this too, largely because they claim that Maliki will use all of the powers of the state, legally and illegally, to ensure it.  All of these scenarios are possible, but so too are many others, including a strong chance that all three will be wrong. 

Indeed, these widely disparate perceptions suggest still another scenario, one in which Iraqiyya and its allies, Maliki’s coalition, the INA, and the Kurdish alliance each win 17-23 percent of the seats in the CoR, with another 20-30 percent going to independents.  This scenario, would be a recipe for a long period of political inertia.  None of the parties would be able to claim an electoral mandate to form the next government.  Moreover, none would be able to build a ruling coalition without at least one of the other four major blocs.  All four groups would immediately begin negotiating among themselves and whenever two appeared likely to agree on a coalition, the other two would immediately band together to block them.  It would be extremely difficult for the government to take any action during this period as anything it did would be seen as a covert effort to influence the negotiations over government formation.  Moreover, the militia leaders and other thugs associated with each of these parties would doubtless grow frustrated with the political wrangling over time, and would likely begin to employ violence to try manipulate those negotiations—a process that could easily snowball if the United States did not move quickly to punish those responsible for doing so.  Finally, a protracted process of government formation, especially one that were seen as generating violence, would jeopardize the Obama Administration’s drawdown plans for Iraq.  Consequently, it is likely that if no government is formed by the early summer, Washington will begin to press heavily for a national unity government that would preserve the façade of progress (thereby allowing the Administration to claim that there is no reason it cannot continue with its drawdown), but that would instead simply transfer all of the problems into the Iraqi government, potentially leaving a weak and fractious Iraqi government unable to act quickly or effectively.  

Even six months ago, PM Maliki and Da’wa seemed certain to win the national elections.  The debate then was mostly over whether he would win a plurality or an outright majority.  Although he remains the most popular man in the country, this popularity has diminished considerably, both from the perception that security problems are growing again and because most Iraqis have not seen any real improvement in basic services.  As the incumbent, the Prime Minister is blamed (both rightly and wrongly) for the lack of progress on both counts.  Moreover, many Iraqis dislike Maliki’s seemingly arbitrary, many claim autocratic, responses to political frustrations.  As a result, the PM has shifted his campaign themes from nationalistic (at least Arab nationalistic) themes about law and order and building a strong, prosperous new Iraq, to more narrow sectarian themes that vilify both Sunni Arabs and Kurds.  His willingness to allow the Accountability and Justice Commission to ban roughly 500 CoR candidates on the grounds of “Ba’thism” speaks to this change in strategy.  If he wins, it will be with a more narrowly sectarian coalition—and based on greater Shi’i chauvinism—than he had originally intended.  This has important ramifications for government formation (it will be hard for him to strike a deal with the Kurds) and for his behavior while in office.  Moreover, if he does win, it is likely that he will face as much, if not more, opposition in the CoR than he has so far.

Iraqiyya has played successfully on the theme that it represents the direction that the Iraqi people want their country to take: secularism over sectarianism, technocracy over patronage, integrity over corruption, and nationalism over sectarianism.  If Iraqis go to the polls feeling particularly angry about the fecklessness of their political leadership, Iraqiyya will no doubt come out ahead.  This is Washington’s dream scenario, not only because Iraqiyya seems to stand for precisely the kind of politics that the U.S. would like to see take root in Iraq, but also because it should be easiest for Iraqiyya to build a governing coalition among other moderate groups, one that would likely isolate the extremists.  Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that an Iraqiyya victory would still present challenges: its victory would be based on the claim that it was different from all the other parties, and so it would have to prove itself different to remain in power: it would have to be less corrupt, more competent, less sectarian, and more even-handed.  Diminishing corruption and increasing competence will invariably be a major challenge for any Iraqi government, and if an Iraqiyya government is unable to deliver it could lose popularity quickly.  Here as well, tremendous help from the U.S. to ensure that Iraqiyya is seen as succeeding on these issues will likely be required, but it is not clear that the Obama Administration would be willing to significantly reinvest in Iraq to make that possible.

Finally, an INA victory remains a distinct possibility, especially if voter turnout is low.  Both ISCI and (especially) the Sadrists have large numbers of devoted followers in Iraq’s Shi’ah community.  Those supporters will come out and vote for them no matter what else is going on, and if relatively few independents (who are more likely to vote for Iraqiyya or Maliki) turn out, the INA could do quite well as a result.  Nevertheless, the INA is a deeply flawed political vehicle:  It is a “shotgun marriage” engineered by Iran of two parties that hate each other.  If the INA wins, ISCI and the Sadrists will have an incentive to stay together, but will have great difficulty agreeing on a prime minister or policies.  ISCI will want Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi, while the Sadrists seem to favor a compromise candidate like Ahmed Chalabi or Ibrahim Jaafari—both of whom are widely loathed outside the Sadrist camp.  There are other compromise candidates, like former national security advisor Qassem Dawud, but he or another such centrist candidate would have a hard time holding that coalition together.  Meanwhile, on policy grounds, ISCI is very close to the Kurds, favors federalism, is mostly pro-American, and has close ties to the Shi’i business community.  The Sadrists hate the Kurds, hate federalism, hate the U.S., and favor something much more socialist.  It will be extremely difficult for these two parties to rule together, which could make their government short-lived if it comes to pass at all.

.  None of these scenarios seem likely to vault Iraq into the front ranks of stable, prosperous states, and many are likely to leave Iraq muddling through no better than it has over the past year or so.  The most dangerous scenario is one in which all four of the leading blocs garners a roughly equal vote, raising the potential for long-term deadlock and renewed violence among parties, sects and ethnicities.  That is the most likely route to civil war.  There, the role of the United States will be critical to damp down the violence and create the space for the Iraqis to sort out there problems and form a government able to rule.  Even the more optimistic scenarios in which Maliki’s Da’wa, Iraqiyya or ISCI emerge with a strong plurality—and thus can claim a clear mandate to form the next government—present major challenges.  These challenges will almost certainly require American help to surmount , not because it is in Iraq’s interests, but because it is in our own.  As always, much as the U.S. would like to diminish its role in Iraq, Iraq’s ultimate course will be heavily dependent on how much the United States remains committed, at least for some time to come.