Sam Parker, an expert on Iraq, says leaked results from Iraq's January 31 provincial elections indicate the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is emerging as the strongest Shiite party in the largely Shiite south, replacing the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party. In the north, he says the apparent victory of Sunni candidates in Mosul, displacing Kurds, is a positive development because it could instill Sunni confidence in the political system. He also says there is considerable posturing in Anbar Province, where some Sunni tribal leaders resent that the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party seems to be winning. These elections are important, he says, because "the results might indicate what the broader political trends are in Iraq."
Iraq had its provincial elections on January 31. We won't have final results for several weeks, and there may still be problems in places such as Anbar province. Overall, what's your general impression of what the results show?
First of all, it's important to realize that there's a whole lot of gaming of these results going on in Iraq to win the perceptions game at the outset. There's not only a decent amount at stake in being able to control the provincial councils that will emerge from these elections, but much more important is how the results might indicate what the broader political trends are in Iraq. That is why now you're seeing everybody claiming victory. If you add up the percentages of votes in certain provinces that certain parties are claiming you get something like 180 percent. When the results finally come out, the narrative that we're seeing emerge, that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI] got "wiped out," that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has emerged strong, that [former Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi made a strong showing is going to be entrenched regardless of what the results say. I can speculate on what I think the conventional wisdom is and what is likely to emerge.
What you're seeing first of all, in the south, is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has emerged as a very strong player.
Now is that due to his military intervention into the south last spring?
That's one element of it. But it's important to put it in context. Maliki was chosen as prime minister because he was a mutually acceptable compromise to what, at the time, were the two opposing ends of Shiite politics in Iraq, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, as it is known today, and the Sadrists, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Maliki's Dawa Party was very weak. Dawa came to Iraq with no popular base, no militia, and was really quite small in numbers. Some of the members had spent time in the West and many of them were academics and doctors, but they weren't really a popular political movement. Maliki, the prime minister, has been a beneficiary of the successes of the past two years and has used the power of patronage to build up his support and to establish tribal support councils which are sort of a military counterweight to his rivals in various areas.
He has strengthened his control all over Iraq. And from having access to money and resources and being the main political player as the central government emerged, he was able to recruit strong candidates throughout the south and really build up a constituency.
It's interesting, because about a year ago, he was regarded in the West as very weak and without any real political standing.
From having access to money and resources and being the main political player as the central government emerged, [Maliki] was able to recruit strong candidates throughout the south and really build up a constituency.
That's right. I don't want to think of him as some kind of Abraham Lincoln. He has been very lucky. He's been a beneficiary of the U.S. surge. He's been a beneficiary of the Anbar Tribal Awakening. He's had a lot of things go right, and he's been rewarded for that. ISCI controlled the Baghdad provincial council and seven of the nine southern, mostly Shiite provincial councils. The reason they did that was because in January 2005, the Sadrists were not organized. They were not a force. Dawa, like I said before, was not a force.
Who controlled Basra?
Fadhila [Shiite party] controlled the Basra provincial council.
So then when they had the military moves last spring, that switched control in Basra?
That is right. That switched control in Basra. The Iraqi army is in firm control of Basra and throughout the south, and in the effort to fight Shiite militants and militias. Now, if you believe what the Sadrists' political people are saying, they're saying a lot of nonmilitary people had been wrapped up in these operations and that the central government is using it as a pretext to eliminate locally oriented political opposition. There's probably some truth to that. There is a real fine line between imposing law and order and eliminating your political opposition. The Sadr movement has been greatly weakened by these efforts by the Maliki government.
What about in Baghdad?
In Baghdad, Maliki or one of his lieutenants was claiming to have won a majority--a claim which I find just completely ridiculous. But, it's possible. In Baghdad, it's a bit more balanced. It's a city population and some of them might have voted for Maliki, but there seem to be some strong anecdotal reports or support for Allawi. And the Sadrists, of course, have their base in northeast Baghdad.
That's "Sadr City," right?
Right. You would expect that they would do well there. Some of the people there might have voted for Maliki, but it's unlikely to me that he has the majority given all the competition there. I mean, I would say it's likely that he gets the plurality, but he's not going to control the provincial council by himself.
So how does it work? How many seats are there in a council?
The mechanism is that in order to get a single seat, you have to reach a certain threshold of votes. If you do not reach that threshold, you do not get any seat. What that means is that there are a whole lot of votes that are wasted because the party involved does not get any seats.
What's the threshold?
The threshold is the number of valid votes divided by the number of seats at stake. So if there are forty seats at stake, you have to get 1/40th of the valid votes.
Each council has different numbers of seats?
It is based on population. The range is from twenty-five in the smallest to fifty-seven in Baghdad, which is the biggest.
Let's go to Anbar Province. This is the most contentious, right?
The council [in Mosul] is going to have Sunni representation, and the provincial money is going to be spent in Sunni Arab areas. Ideally that means you’re going to address some of those underlying causes of violence up there.
I want to caution against reading too much into the threats and complaints that have been coming out of there. In Anbar, the 2005 election had an extremely low turnout and resulted in a provincial council that was dominated by the Iraqi Islamic Party [IIP], which is a Sunni party, but one that had few roots in Iraq. It was never very strong. It started playing the political game after the American invasion and was really the only game in town as far as Sunni political representation went. They also boycotted the broader elections in 2005, but ended up running in various cities. They ran in Diyala. They ran in Anbar on a provincial level, but again, you had only 2 percent turnout in Anbar. They controlled the provincial council and when things got really bad there in 2006, most of them left. This was around that the time that the Marines had started enlisting Sunni tribes as part of the so-called Awakening. The Marines ended up creating a kind of a de facto provincial council with the tribes.
They never took on a formal name, but then once things stabilized there, the IIP came back and they said, "Hey, we are the provincial council." So when it came to allocating all of the contracts for reconstruction that the central government was dispensing, it was the IIP that got to make those decisions. There was a serious amount of patronage and kickbacks associated with the ability to provide contracts, which incidentally is what is at stake in these elections. There was a great deal of resentment by the tribes that the IIP controlled the provincial council. Of course the tribes were getting a great deal of money from CERP [The U.S. military's Commander's Emergency Response Program], they felt the IIP had stolen the leadership of the province. Many people thought going into this election that the IIP was going to get trounced, that the tribes were going to win because they were the ones with the popular support. What we are seeing from preliminary results is that the IIP has in fact won 45 percent and the top tribal leader Sheikh Ahmed Buzaigh abu Risha, has gotten 25 percent. We're hearing now what you are referring to, which is abu Risha claiming that there's fraud and that these election results are going to be illegitimate.
Does it really matter who runs the provincial governments?
Well, first of all, these elections are very important in the sense that they signal what the political trends in Iraq are. The main power that these provincial councils have is to allocate the province's capital investment budget. It gets allocations from the ministry of finance to do what it pleases. So in 2009, you're looking at a total of $2.4 billion of direct allocation to the provinces, which is a lot of money in Iraq. The councils spend that money on infrastructure and for the provision of central services. They use it to build roads, hospitals, water treatment plants, and schools. Now when it comes to actually paying for operating and maintaining those facilities, that falls under the jurisdiction of the central government ministries. So a provincial council might decide to build a hospital, but when it comes to putting doctors in there and keeping a staff to maintain it, that falls to the ministry of health, which has representatives in the provinces.
So summing up, the election went fairly peacefully right?
There was some violence, but much, much less than a lot of people had feared.
What about Mosul? That's been a trouble spot, right?
Nineveh Province, of which Mosul is the capital, is roughly 70 percent Sunni Arab, 20 percent Kurd and 10 percent minorities, including Christians. Now, because of the Sunni boycott in 2005, the provincial government had been Kurdish dominated--of the forty-one seats in the provincial council, there's something like thirty-three or thirty-four Kurds, even though it's 70 percent Sunni Arab. It appears the Sunnis have taken back control of the provincial council and dealt a real setback to the Kurds. Mosul and the broader Nineveh Province is still an area of instability. There's still an insurgency up there. This is because it's because it is right on the fault line of Arab-Kurd tension. So the perceived injustice caused by Kurdish domination of both the provincial council and also of the local security institutions --the army, the police--had fed the underlying political causes of violence. The council is going to have Sunni representation, and the provincial money is going to be spent in Sunni Arab areas. Ideally that means you're going to address some of those underlying causes of violence; the Sunnis are going to feel like that if they play the political game, they will get a fair shake when it comes to representation and distribution of resources. That looks to be a pretty positive development.