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Iraqi Elections: Political Tremors?

Author: Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow
January 25, 2010

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Recent news that Sunni candidates were banned from upcoming Iraqi elections has focused attention on that March 7 vote--a crucial election for a new government to serve through 2014. During that term, most U.S. forces will deploy home and the Iraqi government will decide the type of relationship it wishes to have with the United States. Will Iraq continue to strengthen ties with the West? Will it retrench inward, fearing hostile neighbors and fickle allies? Or will it lurch East, cementing ties with Tehran? Much is at stake, and the United States will have to maneuver carefully, supporting but not overtly interfering with the vote, cabinet formation, and then a new Iraqi government.

The Current Crisis

Iraq is in the middle of a political firestorm after 511 candidates were banned on account of alleged ties to the deposed Ba'ath Party. Recent editorials and op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times have called for direct U.S. intervention. But too overt a response could backfire. Iraqis will work this out, and the United States can best help from behind the scenes.

Let's first be clear about what is happening. The decision to ban candidates stems not from Baghdad, but from Tehran, in a move that has become familiar. In the middle of the night and to the surprise of most Iraqis, a decision comes out of nowhere that tilts power toward an Iranian-backed candidate or agenda. Iran has done this repeatedly over the years, especially during negotiations of a Security Agreement in 2008 and a potential referendum on that agreement earlier this year. Iran's hand was also at work in the first half of 2006, when its preferred candidates refused to back down and Iraq went six months without a government.

Timeline: The Iraq WarThe obscure  committee (the Accountability and Justice Commission) that issued the decision to bar mostly Sunni and secular-leaning candidates includes extreme Shia politicians with direct links to Tehran, including Ahmed Chalabi, who since 2003 turned the process of de-Ba'athification into a witch hunt that fueled a Sunni insurgency. Do leaders like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (a Shia) or President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) want this decision implemented?  Probably not. But they can't say that publicly--not in an election year. Appearing weak on the Ba'ath Party, particularly for a Shia candidate, is a sure route to electoral defeat.

No Iraqi can retain domestic credibility while appearing to bend to the demands of Washington. Smart power in this instance is quiet power.

Iraqis know they have a problem, and they are working to resolve it. The United States can apply pressure behind closed doors, making clear that an election under these circumstances will not be seen as legitimate by the United States, the UN, or anyone else. The United States can also help develop creative solutions around the sudden decree. But overt pressure will only harden the box Tehran is trying to build around leaders who do not share its agenda. No Iraqi can retain domestic credibility while appearing to bend to the demands of Washington. Smart power in this instance is quiet power.

What Comes Next?

Once the latest crisis is resolved, there may be a few more. That is the nature of Iraq. But there will be an election on March 7, and the lineup is remarkably diverse. Overall, there are five main alliances:

1. Iraqi National Alliance (INA). This is the main Shia conglomerate, headed by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrist Trend. It has added some Sunni members, but it is essentially the same lineup that won Iraq's last nationwide election in December 2005. Leading members include Ibrahim al-Jaafari (Dawa), Adil Abd al-Mahdi (ISCI), Mowaffak Rubaie (Shia independent), and Ahmed Chalabi. Those four are likely candidates for prime minister should the INA win the largest share of votes on March 7.

2. State of Law Alliance (SOLA). Earlier this year, Prime Minister Maliki split from the main Shia alliance and formed his own coalition, the SOLA. This is the same coalition that prevailed in the local elections in January 2009. Based on those results, Maliki believes he has tapped the mood of the Iraqi electorate with a message of security and nationalism. But the security platform could ring hollow in the wake of recent high-profile attacks in the heart of Baghdad.

3. Unity of Iraq Alliance. Minister of Interior Jawad al-Bolani (Shia independent) formed this coalition to compete on a similar message to Maliki's: nationalism, non-sectarianism, and security. He put together a broad-based list, with significant Sunni representation (including the head of the Sunni religious endowment, and the head of the Anbar Awakening). It is unclear, however, whether Bolani can compete with more established parties.

4. Iraqi National Movement. Headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (Shia independent), this alliance includes hard-line Sunni Arab political leaders, such as Saleh Mutlaq, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, and Osama Najafi (the brother of the new governor in Mosul), as well as Sunni moderates, like Deputy Prime Minister Rafi Issawi. It is an impressive list, but it is competing for the same voters as Bolani and Maliki--and all three risk cancelling each other out.

5. The Kurdish Coalition. Headed by the two primary Kurdish parties (the PUK and the KDP), this is the same Kurdish alliance that competed for elections in 2005. Kurdish politics have changed quite a bit since then, but a rival breakaway faction from the PUK (called the Change Party) did not join the main Kurdish Coalition. This list shows the old guard still in charge in Kurdistan.

Who Will Win?

Nobody knows. This is what makes the elections so interesting. In the greater Middle East, Iraq is the only place where we have no idea who will be running the government six months from now.

The key question is not so much who will win the election, but how the government will form. The step to watch is nominating the prime minister, which the constitution awards to the "largest parliamentary bloc." In 2006, this was determined to mean the bloc with the most votes in the election, not a post-election bloc, which might form by cobbling together alliances.

So who will win the most votes?

The betting money is on the INA or the SOLA. The INA brings together two famous, albeit rival, names (Hakim and Sadr) with a mosque and organizational network throughout the southern provinces. Maliki and the SOLA bring the message of national unity and strength that prevailed in the local elections one year ago. But one year ago, Sadr and SCIRI were not aligned (as they are now in the INA), and Iraq had not been hit by successive high-profile attacks. Even if these attacks hurt Maliki, however, it is not clear that the INA--elements of which are still blamed for the horrific violence in 2006--can capitalize.

The Kurds have a slim chance if the other blocs cancel one another out and suffer from split voting. Such an outcome is not likely--the Kurds remain, at most, 20 percent of Iraq's population--but the Kurds will retain their familiar role as kingmakers. No government can form without them.

It is also unlikely that the other blocs--led by Allawi, Bolani, or a Sunni bloc (Tawafuq)--can compete with the INA or SOLA for the most votes. If these blocs had found a way to put aside personal rivalries and run on a single ticket, then it would be a juggernaut. But that did not happen, and the three lists could suffer from similar messaging and split-ticket voting. This, ironically, opens the door to Maliki and the INA to prevail, precisely what these blocs did not want to happen.

What to Expect

Government formation will be a protracted and contentious affair, but should with time--months, not weeks--produce a fairly representative government.  The UN can help ensure the Iraqis focus on forming a competent government, not resolving every outstanding issue (such as oil and Kirkuk) through horse-trading cabinet seats. Throwing those issues into the mix will hopelessly complicate things.

Spoilers remain al-Qaeda and Iran. The former will likely return to its playbook from 2006 and seek to carry out high-profile attacks. The latter will seek to further the perception that it is the indispensible actor in Iraq--using threats and bribes to ensure candidates emerge to its liking. But Iraq of 2010 is not the Iraq of 2006, and direct interference will carry unintended consequences and a potential backlash.

There is a lesson there, too, for the United States. The United States must be careful not to intrude upon the sense of national sovereignty that began to emerge in Iraq over the past two years. The Iraqis will work much of this out themselves (as they must), and the U.S. should play a supporting role, assisting when asked from behind the scenes, but generally staying out of the ring--lest we bloody our own nose.

Eyes on the Prize

Despite all the mistakes and setbacks since 2003, there is now real potential for Iraq to emerge as a driver of stability in the greater Middle East. Key questions will be whether the new government represents all the major communities inside Iraq; whether it is able to continue the modernization of Iraq's security forces and infrastructure; and whether it is a friend of the United States--able to work with the country as it completes the responsible drawdown of U.S. forces and considers a security partnership to outlast 2011. What happens after March 7, in this regard, may determine the final outcome of the war.

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