Life in Iraq has come to a halt. It is impossible any officials doing their jobs. Ministers, bureaucrats, even businessmen... Some are seeking support in neighboring countries, some in electoral districts. Campaign offices have been opened, and the propaganda buttons have been pushed. At times it’s decorated with religious concerns, and at times nationalist themes have been foregrounded in the streets. With every breath you take you understand that violence has been replaced by cutthroat political infighting. Going from one city to another, or from one neighborhood to the next, you can see how the atmosphere changes. Those who believe the occupation will never end seem to have had their hopes renewed by the elections. Even though every coalition patrol that passes wears away at these hopes, Middle Eastern style resignation hangs over Iraqis like a shadow in the wake of political confrontations.
Whatever the result of the elections, the near future will be determined by a state of political conflict. For the political factions which have been formed artificially, or in other words, by necessity, the elections will function as a litmus test. Moreover, while this situation became apparent before the elections, today it encompasses the entire nation. There is really no doubt that what concretized these political differences was the election law. After eight months of debates and resignations and the passage of the law in November, the process has ended, but its pains continue. And these pains are pregnant with even greater problems for after the elections.
The Linchpin of the Elections
According to the arrangements for the elections, the votes of all Iraqis living abroad will be valid for the elections of the province in which they are registered. So someone from Mosul who lives abroad cannot vote in Iraq’s general elections, but can vote for the candidates listed in Mosul. On the other hand, the situation is the same in Iraq.
For example, someone living in Mosul but registered as a Kirkuk resident will be able to vote in the province of Kirkuk. Here it is certainly not incorrect to say that Ayad Allawi’s list benefits from the many votes they expect from Iraqis abroad. Leading Sunni politicians such as Allawi, Saleh al-Mutlaq, Tariq al-Hashimi and Usama Najafi will run in the elections along with the Iraqi Turkmen Front. At this point it can be said that allowing Iraqis abroad to vote in their registered provinces won a partial advantage for Allawi’s list.
Maliki’s Baathist Democracy
More importantly, President Maliki’s opposition has been united by the elections process.
Above all, the key to determining whose presidency will form what sort of government after the elections lies here. This is because January’s developments caused even deeper jolts that the election law. Iraq’s independent election commission found 511 candidates in the elections to be affiliated with the Baathist party and that they were collaborators with the oppression of Saddam’s regime. On these grounds their candidacies were annulled. This caused more disputes. First of all, among the 511 names announced were leading Sunni politicians such as Saleh Al-Mutlaq, president of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and Zafir al-Ani, leader of the Iraqi Accord Front, and since most of the candidates were from important Sunni groups united under the leadership of former President Ayad Allawi’s Iraq National List, this was judged to be an attack on Allawi’s growing popularity and against Sunni acquisition of power. Despite the Prime Minister’s March 2008 abolition of the accountability and justice board created after the US invasion in order weaken the Baathist party’s power base in Iraq, announcing such a list provoked constitutional debate. The fact that the president of the accountability and justice board, Ali Al-Lami, is running in the elections on the list of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, presided over by Ammar Al-Hakim, cast a shadow over the announced list’s impartiality. These debates were rekindled by a new notice from the Prime Minister stating that although the accountability and justice board had been abolished its decisions were still valid, and generated the threat that Allawi and the Sunni groups would boycott the elections. Deeming that these ongoing developments could lead to sectarian tensions and jeopardize the elections, as the US was beginning its withdrawal process and hoping not to have problems, it was starting to feel anxious. Problems that couldn’t be resolved despite US pressure were thought to have been overcome by US Vice President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Iraq; however, they remain a potential threat for after the elections. This threat will delay the formation of a new post-election government or a long time.
Despite Iraq’s election process being underway and ongoing uncertainties about the electoral system, experiencing this kind of situation brings Iraqi political bargaining to mind. In Iraq every political process turns into a race “to get a piece of the pie.” As the elections approach, all the trump cards that can be had are being played, and every effort is being made to weaken the opposition. Election propaganda is based on political negotiations, and whatever the elections’ results, the focus is on the benefits to be gained from the elections. In other words, in Iraq what’s important is not the elections’ results, but that they occur, because the negotiations rule the process.
The US Tug of War with Iran and its “Withdrawal with Honor”
Currently, Iraq does not belong to Iraqis. The US military presence in Iraq continues. This is why Iraq has becoming a playing field for others, and regional and international accounts are being settled in Iraq. The duel between the US and Iran over nuclear energy, involving Western nations and Israel, and a struggle for regional dominance, too, are all being experienced in Iraq. At this point, the pressure on Iran over its nuclear energy runs parallel to the tension in Iraq. With the US withdrawal the Iranian regime will lose power, too. The mullahs, who have managed to keep themselves in power with opposition to the West and fears of occupation, know that withdrawal will leave them to face stronger attacks by their opposition. Moreover, the tension between the Iranian regime and Iraqi politics is increasing. For now the opposition is seen as a struggle for influence behind the scenes. After the elections it will also be noisily expressed by the Shiites. Iran will be left with a small Shiite minority. In this situation will drag Iran to a more aggressive stance towards Iraqi politics. Although the US withdrawal from Iraq appears to increase Iran’s stature in the region, it can be said that the US presence in Iraq facilitates Iran’s intervening in Iraq and results in the division of US power. This is because as long as the US stays in it cannot concentrate on problematic areas such as Afghanistan. It can clearly be seen that this is why the US wants to get out of Iraq before it loses control. Sunni groups’ blocking or boycotting the elections will put Iraq’s security worries back on the agenda, and this is also the threat most likely to jeopardize the “withdrawal with honor.”
The experience of drafting the election law is an example of this. Moreover, the experience of the 2005 elections is still fresh in the people’s memory. Sunni groups’ non-participation in the January 2005 elections and limited participation in the December 2005 elections resulted in them not getting enough of a share in the government, and since the more they were excluded from the political process the more tensions in Iraq grew, in the end sectarian conflicts emerged. Being aware of this, the US has reduced tensions, for now, by intervening in the process. On the other side, Iraq’s intelligent men, such as Sistani, have laid the groundwork for cushioning the process with the statements they made about the candidates’ return. However, after the elections political tensions will increase even more.
This is because while new coalitions replace the old ones, all sides seem to have agreed on the exclusion of the prime minister from the politics of the ballot box. The coalition process between competing lists came to an end. Meanwhile political forces are preparing for coalitions in the parliament that will be formed after the elections. In this context, Erbil is winking to the former Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi.
The New Coalition
Kurdish sources in Baghdad and Erbil do not hide the fact that influential sides such as the Islamic Council, the Iraq List and the Kurdish coalition are determined to draw the outlines of new understandings that aim to change details in order to determine the political future. What change means is using elections to push Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki out of the political equation. Turkey’s active role should be kept in mind at this point.
The new parliament created at the end of this effort will include five active political forces in its coalition:
-The two central Kurdish parties: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK);
-The two Shiite parties; the Dawa Party currently in power and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq,
-The Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.
Four years of escalating disagreements between Maliki and the forces within his coalition, lead America and some Iraqis to thinking that it is time for real change. The US call for change to the northern Iraq Kurdish administration’s president, Massoud Barzani and to Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi is a determining factor.
Additionally, it should be taken into consideration that the details of conditions in Iraq are not similar to the conditions that obtained during the 2005 elections. The Shiite formation is starkly divided between the national coalition list led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Maliki’s new list. The Kurdish formation has also been dissipated by the weakness of PUK and the emergence of the Change list led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, Talabani’s former deputy. Observing this situation made some groups want to eliminate the 511 people alleged to be Baathist. However, it is certain that Sunnis will emerge from these elections stronger than they did after the 2005 elections. This is practically Maliki’s only trump card against the coalition to be formed during and after the election. The Kurds and a few of the Shiite groups in the five party coalition might use tactical means to reduce the Sunnis ability to gain power. This will give the US a serious headache.
At this stage Maliki’s has little ability to achieve concrete success in the area of national compromise or to participate in such a process. It is certain that the US and many Iraqi forces are determined to use every means to force Maliki out of political elections. Sunni Arabs have withdrawn their support for Maliki. The Kurds lost confidence in the prime minister as a result of his slowness in realizing their constitutional gains. The Shiite powers do not trust Maliki’s tendency to turn Iraq into a powerful central government. Neighboring Arab states are also bothered by Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.
Powerful Arab nations in the region seem far from being able to fill the geopolitical gap that has emerged in the Middle East. However, Turkey, in particular, is increasing its influence on groups in Iraq and tackling other problems. In response to the Arab card that Turkey has played, Iran, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all want to show themselves. While tension between Israel and the Turkish government is rising, Iran is trying to respond to Turkey’s initiatives in Iraq. It is understood that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also preparing to enter a strategic partnership against Turkey. This is because the strongest Sunni groups in Iraqi politics trust Turkey more than the Arab League.
The Iraqi elections are seen as the most hopeful opportunity ever. Although there are many elements that deserve this conception, it is obvious that the elections bear the potential for heavy political conflict. The possibility that tensions carried from the streets to the political arena could again turn into widespread armed conflict should not be underestimated. Since these are the last elections of the occupation period March 7 is of crucial importance. Everyone agrees on the fact that the future is a turning point for Iraq. However, the success of the elections will be understood during the formation of the government, or more accurately, the power sharing. Whatever happens, for Iraqis the March 7 elections will be remembered as the dawn of becoming a new nation.
The number of seats in Iraq’s Parliament has been raised from 275 to 325, with the increase in seats assigned to Duhok and Sulaimaniya. Of this figure, 310 seats are divided among the provinces, and 15 seats are set aside for minorities and as compensatory seats for Iraqis living abroad.
Baghdad 68 Mosul 31
Basra 24 Zikar 18
Sulaimaniya 17 Babil 16
Anbar 14 Erbil 14
Diyala 13 Kirkuk 12
Selahaddin 12 Najaf 12
Vasit 11 Al-Qādisiyyah 11
Meysan 10 Duhok 10
Karbala 10 Musanna 7