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Understanding the Iraqi Elections: Near-Term and Long-Term Considerations

On March 22, 2010, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a policy luncheon discussion with Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard Law School and former senior adviser for constitutional law to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. Kenneth Pollack, the director of the Saban Center, moderated the discussion. The panelists discussed the elections that took place in Iraq on March 7, 2010, and analyzed the implications of the elections on the country’s political future, regional stability, and U.S.-Iraq relations.

Joost Hiltermann opened the discussion by highlighting three factors that made the March 7 elections pivotal. First, Hiltermann said, these were the first elections in Iraq’s history organized on the basis of an open-list system. An open-list system, as opposed to the previously used closed-list system, increases voters’ influence on the outcome of the elections by allowing voters to cast ballots for a party, as well as for individual candidates (under a closed-list system, a voter can only cast a ballot for a party). Hiltermann said that the open-list system introduced an element of unpredictability in the elections because under the system, rather than a party’s leadership having ranked their candidates before the elections, candidates are ranked after the elections according to the number of votes they receive.

In addition, Hiltermann said, the March 7 elections represented the second electoral cycle in Iraq since the fall of Saddam’s regime, and some provisional electoral procedures adopted in the 2005 Constitution were no longer valid. Most notably, the 2005 Constitution contained a provision mandating a three-member presidency. That provision has been replaced with one that mandates a single-member presidency. According to Hiltermann, this shift has introduced new complexities into Iraq’s already intricate political landscape. Specifically, identities of the three major ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq—Sunni, Shi’ah, and Kurd—continue to influence the country’s political processes. In Hiltermann’s view, under the three-member presidency it was easier to conciliate the numerous contending factions and coalitions by including a president from each of the three major ethnic and sectarian groups. By contrast, a single-president system lacks the flexibility to allow such political accommodation and can therefore obstruct the formation of the government. In addition, the three-member presidency involved stronger constitutional powers (e.g., stronger veto power), and, by extension, more robust checks and balances.

The third factor that contributed to the significance of March 7 elections, according to Hiltermann, is that these elections were the last in Iraq to take place in the presence of a large number of U.S. combat forces. The challenge that currently confronts Iraqi and American leaders alike is whether Iraq will be able to solidify its fragile democracy without the continued presence and support of U.S. combat troops. Although Iraq has adopted many procedures necessary to establish a democratic system—including frequent, free, and fair elections—it has not yet developed effective liberal institutions that are strong enough to sustain a democratic polity. In this regard, Hiltermann cautioned that once the election results are announced, the candidate who loses may resort to various means to dispute the elections’ outcome, including the extreme option of using military force, which would destabilize the country and trigger a new wave of violence. Hiltermann emphasized that a resurgence of violence is plausible because Iraq’s communities remain polarized along ethnic and sectarian fault lines. If the formation of the new Iraqi government is postponed until after August 2010—when the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces nears its completion—and the United States leaves behind a political vacuum in Iraq, resumption of violence will become all the more likely. 

In discussing the impact of the Iraqi elections on U.S. policies, Noah Feldman concurred with Hiltermann’s observation that although Iraq has the means to implement democratic processes in the short run, it lacks functioning institutions to foster democratic culture, values, and leadership—all of which are required to sustain a stable democracy over the long run. More strikingly, Iraq’s current institutions are inadequate for governing the country on a daily basis, including addressing constituencies’ grievances, and providing basic services to the population. Many Iraqis continue to seek protection and provision of services from U.S. forces. But, as Feldman observed, with the reduction of the U.S. combat troops, the United States’ leverage and its ability to protect and provide for the Iraqi population, and influence Iraq’s governance and political processes will decline dramatically.  

Commenting on Iraq’s ethno-sectarian politics, Feldman pointed to what he thought to be a major shift in the country’s ethno-sectarian dynamic. Feldman observed that although identities and ethnic and denominational cleavages continue to influence ordinary people’s attitudes and voting behavior, the recent elections demonstrated that many ethnic and sectarian factions no longer feel compelled to form united fronts or alliances based on ethnicity or religious denominations, as they did during the previous elections. Most conspicuously, there was no unified Shi’i bloc in the recent elections. Feldman argued that this pattern will become more common in the long run, because in mature democracies, interests do not typically align along ethnic or religious lines. Instead, political interests involve domestic, economic, ideological, and regional dimensions. This trend is especially noticeable in post-conflict societies. For example, as security conditions in Iraq improved—and survival no longer was the main force driving people’s actions or affiliations—many people voted according to the principles of ordinary politics. That is, Iraqi voters prioritized economic and social considerations, among other things, in making their political decisions, and most importantly, they increasingly recognize that the essence of politics is negotiation and compromise. In that sense, Feldman contended, the splits between the various Shi’i groups or within the Sunni factions should be taken as a sign of progress.

Feldman concluded by sketching a few directions in which Iraq could go and how each scenario would influence U.S. positions and interests both in Iraq and the broader Gulf region. The first scenario is one in which the United States continues withdrawing its forces while Iraqis have not yet formed a government. In this scenario, the Obama administration would most likely pressure the Iraqi leaders to form a government. Under pressure, the Iraqi leaders would turn back to the United States for help in forming the government. However, since U.S. efforts at shaping an Iraqi government have not been effective in the past, when the United States had more resources on the ground, including roughly 130,000 troops, the probability that the United States would succeed in helping Iraqis form a government with modest resources and significantly lower numbers of troops (and hence less leverage), would be very low.

The second scenario, Feldman said, is one in which the number of U.S. combat troops would decrease, and various spoilers and residual insurgent forces would attempt to provoke a civil conflict. This development would have repercussions not only in the Gulf region—as it will intensify the existing tensions between Sunni and Shi’i communities in the countries surrounding Iraq—but also in Afghanistan—as it would embolden the Taliban and encourage them to step up violence against the U.S. and NATO forces deployed in the country. In a third scenario, in which violence would increase but fall short of a full-blown civil war because the Iraqi Security Forces would be able to contain it, Iraq’s political and economic development would stagnate and the country would remain in a chronic paralysis. Were this to happen, Iraqi leaders would not be able to concentrate on governing, developing institutions, or strengthening the domestic infrastructure. Instead, because security would reemerge as the primary concern, Iraq’s leaders would have to divert resources from other projects and mobilize manpower to contain the violence. The final, more optimistic scenario, is one in which Iraqi politicians would recognize that to be reelected they would need to deliver to their constituencies. This scenario is conceivable, especially if elections continue to be frequent, free, and fair, because these elections would induce many politicians to focus on governance and public welfare in order to increase their chances for reelection.

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Joost Hiltermann

Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group

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