Brown: Makeup of New Iraqi Government Crucial to Iraqi Future

December 13, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Elections and Voting


Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab constitutions, who has devoted particular attention to the Iraqi political scene, says that the makeup of the new Iraqi government after Thursday’s parliamentary elections will be crucial to that country’s future. He is concerned that the Shiite-Kurd coalition that has run the country since last January’s elections will keep a narrow-based government to press its program of decentralizing power away from the central government.

“Basically, we’re looking at a parliament which will resemble the current one, with more Sunni representation,” says Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on leave from George Washington University. “So what kind of coalition comes out?…Some of the Shiite leaders have swung very hard behind the idea of decentralization, which of course the Kurds are extremely enthusiastic about….It could make the people who feel the country is on the brink of dissolution really fearful.”

He says the United States would prefer a more broadly based coalition including Sunnis that might be able to halt the insurgency. “What would end the insurgency, would be an incorporation of Sunni parties into the government, giving them some credibility within their constituencies, perhaps some resources being devoted to these communities and meeting some of their demands with regard to a timetable for withdrawal and a limitation. It’s going to be very hard to meet all these demands.”

Brown was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 13, 2005.

What should we look for in this week’s Iraqi elections?

One thing will be how well the main existing blocs do. Essentially, the government has been run since the January 2005 elections by a Kurdish and Shiite coalition. One major question will be how many seats those parties in power will obtain. A second question is how many seats will be obtained by parties that aren’t based on ethnic and sectarian identities. I’m not so optimistic there, but I think over the long run, a lot of people think one of the best ways to put Iraq together is to diminish the role of parties with those identities. I think a third question will be how the Sunnis actually vote. Most people are expecting a great increase in Sunni turnout, but because they haven’t voted in the past, we don’t have a very strong sense where their electoral loyalties lie.

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is running on a secular slate. Does that slate have a chance? And where?

It’s not extremely clear. He’ll be strongest probably among those people who identify themselves as “Iraqi first-ers.” He may also have appeal to some Sunnis because he is opposed to the extreme de-Baathification that has been taking place in Iraq over the last couple of years. If you ask where those people are located, it may be to some extent in Sunni provinces and to a great extent in Baghdad. The backbone of this support is not so much geographic, but from that sector of society with an educated middle class and people from mixed Sunni-Shiite families.

I would also add, although it is dangerous to make any predictions, that last January you had the same calculations going on and you had added into that the fact that Allawi was an incumbent and had all of the advantages of incumbency, and yet did not turn in a very impressive electoral performance. I’m not sure he’s all that well set to improve on that performance. He’ll still control a significant number of parliamentary seats, but those people who are expecting a horde of Iraqis to vote Iraqi first and ethnic or sectarian identity second may be disappointed.

How soon do we expect to know results?

The electoral commission gets very high marks for accuracy under incredibly difficult circumstances, but not for speed. We saw the last two times before— they checked, they re-checked the certified results. We may be looking at a week or two before we have any results.

Then this new parliament is supposed to sit by December 31?

No, it’s supposed to be called within fifteen days after the certification of results. We’re probably looking at sometime in January.

The Shiites have a very strong coalition, right? You have all the major parties in one slate, or am I mistaken on that?

For the most part, yes. We see the same slate that we had going into the elections last January with a couple of smaller elements like [Deputy Prime Minister] Ahmad Chalabi or [Shiite parliamentarian] Ali al-Dabbagh having left the party.

They were part of the governing Shiite coalition?

Yes. While the coalition lost those two, who have some national name recognition, they have gained some members of the Sadr movement [named after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr], which could be significant. But we don’t know how well the Sadrist movement is going to be unified in order to pull its supporters into the polls to vote for this ticket.

Did the Sadrist movement take part in the January elections?

For the most part it stood on the sidelines. Some individual members of the movement did participate in various ways, on various lists. But the movement as a whole seemed to stand on the sidelines.

If the U.S. government had its druthers, what would it like to see result from the elections?

I think the U.S. government would like to see first, that the parties that are not ethnically or religious or sectarian in their identification do very well; and second, I think they would love to see a leadership emerge that is committed to pursuing a path to national reconciliation from whichever political party.

Is it likely that the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, will emerge as head of the government again, or is it more likely another prime minister will be chosen?

I think it is fairly likely that the prime minister will come from the Shiite alliance. Jaafari himself does not get very high marks. The government’s performance hasn’t been impressive and he has a rather underwhelming public persona. A lot of people are expecting the coalition to make a switch but it hasn’t tipped its hand yet.

Except for the heads of tickets, the names of individual candidates are not known, right?

That’s absolutely right. You have a system in which people vote for electoral lists or political parties, not for individual candidates. In most countries that have that kind of system, you at least know who is on the list. But in the Iraqi system, the names are held secret by the electoral commission and the political parties themselves.

Let’s talk a bit about the Sunnis. I guess in the current parliament they are hardly represented right?

There’s a very small number of Sunni representatives.

In this new election, assuming they do well in the Sunni provinces, how many more seats would they get?

If they get seats in accordance with their share of the population, most people will guess something like 20 percent, or some forty to fifty seats in the new parliament. We don’t know for sure because there hasn’t been a reliable census, but that’s most people’s guess.

Do the Sunnis have a program?

They have a host of parties, but we really have very little sense of how much electoral support any of these parties have. It is also possible that some Sunnis would vote not for a narrowly-based Sunni party, but perhaps for Allawi’s list.

Is there any chance that these Sunni parties could bring their influence to bear to stop the insurgency?

That’s a hope, but I would say that’s probably a long-term hope, rather than a short-term one. A lot depends not simply on what will happen in the elections, but also what happens after the elections in terms of meeting some of the Sunni depends about de-Baathification, the presence of American troops and so forth and so on.

The Sunnis, of course, were unhappy with the constitution. They voted very heavily against it and they were almost able to veto it. What’s going to happen with the constitution? There’re some provisions for it being revised, right?

Exactly. That was a last-minute concession offered to one of the key Sunni parties. The constitution as it was finally passed includes a provision that the parliament will form a commission after the elections that will take four months to come up with a set of constitutional amendments, and then present them to the parliament. Assuming parliament approves them, they would be sent to the entire population for ratification. It’s a process that makes constitutional amendments difficult, but it was enough of a concession at least to bring one of the Sunni parties on board to support the constitution.

What are the key issues of the constitution that is dividing the country right now?

I would say the most critical issue is that which has been referred to as “federalism,” but goes much deeper than that and connects with all kinds of other issues. It really has to do with the relative strengths of the central government and of the regional and provincial governments. The constitution seems to tip the balance very much in the favor of the latter. I would say that’s connected to other issues: These include oil resources and revenues and how those are going to be distributed; the make-up of the security forces; and to even some extent, ethnic and sectarian issues. The provincial borders tend to reflect some ethnic and sectarian division in Iraq. There are some other issues that are controversial as well, such as those regarding Islam and the country’s identity and to what extent it can be described as an Arab country. But I would say the key, practical differences really relate to the division of powers between the center and regional governments.

There is sort of an ambiguity over who is responsible for developing oil resources in the current constitution, isn’t there?

Yes, the constitution has a couple of revisions on this that seem to promise something to everybody. The central government is going to have a role; the local governments are going to have a role. These are going to be distributed equitably, but on the other hand, there is going to be a reflection of past grievances from regions, especially Kurdish and Shiite regions, which felt they had been discriminated against in the past in the receiving of revenues. It seems to distinguish between existing oil fields and new production in a way that is so vague that it really has to be spelled out by legislation the new parliament will have to pass, probably by negotiation between the federal government and the regions.

So that’s a key issue that has to be worked out. But if the elections produce a parliament very heavily Shiite, then will the Shiites be able to dictate along with the Kurds?

To me that’s really the big question. What kind of coalition comes out from this election and, in a sense, the precise results don’t matter that much because everybody is expecting the Shiite coalition to do fairly well [and] the Kurds to go down a bit because the Sunnis are participating.

Basically, we’re looking at a parliament that will resemble the current one with more Sunni representation. So what kind of coalition comes out? In terms of the Shiite-Kurd alliance, there’s an awful lot of tension and some bad blood there. Some of the Shiite leaders have swung very hard behind the idea of decentralization, which of course the Kurds are extremely enthusiastic about. I think that lays the basis for a central government that is dominated by political parties that are actually trying to decentralize the government. It could make the people who feel the country is on the brink of dissolution really fearful. There are other possible coalitions that could come out of this, but when I look at the coincidence of interests, even though I see a very strong divide between the Kurdish and Shiite leadership, I also see strong forces pushing them together to push for decentralization.

That will leave the Sunnis on the outside?

That will leave the Sunnis on the outside. It may also leave the Sadrists, who are perhaps participating in this Shiite coalition, on the outside because they’ve taken a very strong line against decentralization.

Chalabi is running on a Shiite secular ticket?

Yes, that’s probably how to describe it. He’s very strong on de-Baathification. He’s also very strong on the southern region. But he is also criticizing the existing government for being too religious in orientation.

How will the new government deal with the very controversial subject of the American troops? After all, the recent Arab League meeting in November attended by the various Iraqi factions voted for having an early timetable for withdrawal.

The meeting in Cairo had a very interesting outcome. On the one hand, they declared there was a political consensus, that there should be some timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. But very few people noticed that at the same time, the same statement expressed support for the recent UN Security Council resolution [passed in November] that extended the mandate for American troops through the next calendar year. So there was something for everybody to take away from it. The new government is going to be in a very tough position because it can’t be all things to all people; it’s going to have to take a stand. I would be very surprised if the Shiite parties and the Kurdish parties pushed very hard for American withdrawal. I think they might make general and symbolic noises about restoring Iraqi sovereignty and eventual American withdrawal, but I don’t think they’re going to push the issue very quickly.

Under this setup there would be no incentive to end the insurgency, right?

What would end the insurgency would be an incorporation of Sunni parties into the government, giving them some credibility within their constituencies, perhaps some resources being devoted to these communities, and meeting some of their demands with regard to a timetable for withdrawal. It’s going to be very hard to meet all these demands.

Allawi has no chance of being prime minister, obviously. The best he can do is to get some seats in the cabinet or get a seat in the cabinet or something, right?

I think so. I think there might be some pressure to form a very broad-based government. That might bring him in and might bring the Sunni parties in as well.

A broad-based government would be something the U.S. government would like, right?

I think so. They would very much like the various Iraqi political forces to be dealing directly with each other, hammering things out within the cabinet, rather than fighting things out in the streets.

We don’t know whether that will eventually come. We don’t know if the Shiites and the Kurds will agree to that.

No, we don’t know. I think there is a very strong possibility that they will try to do so. The question is will they be willing to make the concessions necessary to bring other parties on board?