The results of the January 31, 2009 provincial elections will not be known for weeks, but there are already a slew of reports predicting the winners. The biggest victor is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose State of Law list could come away with more than half of the fourteen provinces that held elections. Former Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi, while not winning any governorates could have a strong showing as well. The Sadrists and Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council look to be the losers, but are still on the scene. New parties like the Awakening in Anbar and the Hadbaa party in Ninewa have also appeared. In the larger picture, the vote is a correction for some of the problems created by the 2005 one, it shows that the idea of a southern autonomous region is probably dead, that Maliki’s drive for a strong central government is on its way to becoming a reality, and that sectarian and ethnic divides still exist in Iraq. The biggest question is whether any of these new politicians will do any better at actual governing than the ones that they are replacing.
Who Could Be The Winners?
Six parties have apparently taken the lion’s share of votes in the January election. According to the government Al-Sabah paper those are Maliki’s State of Law list, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s list, the Iraqi National List of former Prime Minister Allawi, the Sadrists’ Independent Trend of the Noble Ones, the National Project, and the Iraqi Accordance Front of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. The State of Law coalition is made up of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, the offshoot Dawa Party Iraqi Organization, the Independent Blog, the Solidarity Bloc, the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkmen, Kurdish Feli Fraternity Movement, and the Shaabani Uprising Bloc 1991. They call for law and order, getting rid of militias and corruption, and a strong central government. It is a Shiite list, but includes Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen. The Martyr of the Pulpit is made up of four branches of the Supreme Council, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Shaheed al-Mihrab Bloc, the Badr Organization, and the Independent Bloc. They advocate an autonomous Shiite region in the south, job creation, oppose the return of Baathists, and want compensation for crimes during Saddam’s rule. The Iraqi Accordance Front also put together a coalition consisting of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Reform Bloc of Diyala Province, the Iraqi Legation for Independent Organization of Civil Society, the Arabic Iraqi Congregation, and the General Conference of Iraqi People. They advocate the unity of Iraq, Arab and Islamic identity, an end to the U.S. occupation, the freeing of all prisoners held by the Americans, amending the constitution, maintaining Diyala’s borders, and reforming the government and justice system. The National Project is an opposing Sunni coalition led by Salih al-Mutlaq and former speaker of parliament Mahmoud Mashadani. They are both from the Iraqi Natioanl Dialogue Council who recently split from the Accordance Front. They along with the Iraqi National List and Sadrists have all worked together in parliament as the loosely organized opposition. Iraqi nationalism, a call for a strong central government, and opposition to the ruling parties are what unite them.
Of those six, Maliki’s State of Law could walk away with the majority of Iraq’s provinces. Two papers Al-Sabah and Al-Sharq al-Awsat say that Maliki’s State of Law has come in first in six southern provinces. All are not known yet, but reports point to Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Wasit, Maysan, and one other. A government source said the list could come away with all nine southern provinces, the five already mentioned plus Karbala, Najaf, Babil, and Qadisiyah. That seems like wishful thinking. In Basra, which was the beginning of Maliki’s turnaround from a weak ineffectual leader to a strong one, his coalition has 50% of the vote. In second is the Supreme Council with 20%. The State of Law may also come away with Baghdad, having won the Shiite east, including Sadr City. That could leave the Prime Minister’s list in control of seven provinces, and be a major blow to the Supreme Council and the Sadrists that are now in power.
Some new parties such as the al-Hadbaa National List in Ninewa may also be victorious. The List is made up of the al-Hadbaa National United Assembly, the Patriotic and National Forces Assembly, the Iraqi and Kurdsitani Party for Freedom and Equality, and the Al-Wasat Iraqi Assembly. The party is led by Atheel al-Nujaifi, and has run on an explicitly anti-Kurdish and pro-security ticket. They oppose Kurdish rule and designs on the province. Currently Kurds control 31 of the 41 council seats, and wish to annex northern sections of the province. Al-Hadbaa has accused the Kurdish controlled security forces and their militia the peshmerga of harassing them. They also claim that if they are elected they will help bring an end to the insurgency in Ninewa, which is largely fueled by the ethnic divide between Arabs and Kurds. This conflict could be the reason why 60% of the province turned out to vote, one of the highest in the country. A U.S. official said that the party could have up to 66% of the vote. If true that would mean they could rule the province without the need of a larger coalition or joint rule with the Kurds. The U.S. general in command of Mosul said he hoped the election would lead to reconciliation, and an end to the violence in one of the country’s most volatile areas. However al-Hadbaa’s anti-Kurdish campaign could lead to more divisions instead.
In other Sunni areas, the Anbar Awakening and Accordance Front list are battling it out. According to Al-Sabah, the tribal Awakening is winning in Anbar. A parliamentarian from the Accordance Front claimed his list is taking in Anbar however, along with Diyala and Salahaddin. He also said they are coming in third in Babil and Basra, a surprise if true since they are Shiite majority provinces.
Another newcomer is Yousef Majid al-Haddoubi, who could walk away with Karbala. Al-Haddoubi is a secular Shiite independent who heads the Brigade List. He was the governor of the province under Saddam, and then became the mayor of Karbala City after the U.S. invasion.
Larger coalitions to rule provinces are also emerging. In Najaf, the Sadrists, the Iraqi National List, the Reform Movement, and the Iraqi National Congress announced that they would form an alliance to try to take the province.
What Does It All Mean?
Many of the parties that came to power in 2005 were not representative of their populations. This could account for most of them being swept from office. The Supreme Council won Babil, Baghdad, Dhi Qar, Karbala, Muthanna, Najaf and Qadisiyah in the previous vote because they were the largest Shiite party, the best organized, had the most money, were founded by an established clerical family the Hakims, had the backing of Iran, said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani supported them, and the Sadrists largely stayed away from the polls. The SIIC also won in Diyala, the Iraqi Islamic Party in Anbar, and the Kurds in Ninewa and Salahaddin because of the Sunni boycott. The Islamic Party for example, only got 2,692 votes out of 3,775 in Anbar as a result because it ran largely uncontested. Those disparities are now over, although Anbar may still be up for grabs.
There have also been several articles stating that the 2009 vote is a rejection of the religious parties, but this is only partly true. The two main parts of Maliki’s State of Law list are Shiite religious groups, the Islamic Dawa and the Dawa Party Iraq Organization. The Supreme Council might have lost control of the south, but are still present, the same thing with the Sadrists. The Iraqi Islamic Party is also Islamist. Many stressed nationalism and backed independents, but that doesn’t invalidate their pasts. What the lists found is that they had to address issues more to get elected rather than just their religion, and that is an important shift in Iraqi politics. At the same time, Sunnis continued to mostly vote for Sunni parties, Shiites for Shiites, Kurds for Kurds. Sectarianism still exists in Iraq, it’s just more political than violent today.
For the south, the January election probably marks the end of any autonomous region there. The Supreme Council promoted a nine province Shiite region after the U.S. invasion, but largely dropped it. Right before the vote, a member of the Hakim family said they would revive the idea after January 31. That won’t happen now because the SIIC may not control a single province after everything is said and done. The defeat of the Basra autonomous plan and polls show little support for the idea anyway.
Instead, Iraq could be moving towards a stronger central government based in Baghdad. Maliki consistently called for this as he was campaigning across the country. His military actions against the Sadrists, insurgents, and Kurds were all part of his strategy. Now he could have control of both Baghdad, and friendly governors in the south to further his plan.
Finally, the most important question is whether any of the State of Law candidates or any of the other new lists coming to power will be any better at governing than the current ones. Many voted for the State of Law list because of the Prime Minister, not the actual politicians running. The current provincial councils are known for being incompetent, sectarian, corrupt, and suffer from a slow paper based bureaucracy and a centralized state where Baghdad and the individual ministers have all the power. The new councils will also have to deal with half the money as their predecessors due to the dramatic drop in the price of oil. That will make their job even more difficult. They will have to do a much better job to keep the loyalty of their followers, and not alienate more Iraqis from the political system that has not served them well on the local and provincial level.
Agence France Presse, “Iraqi PM Calls for Strong Central Government,” 1/22/09
Alsumaria, “Iraq elections leaks say Al Maliki ahead,” 2/2/09
Aswat al-Iraq, “IAF realizes progress in Salah el-Din, Diala, Anbar, - MP,” 2/2/09
- “No decrease in salaries because of oil prices – planning minister” 12/19/08
- “Sadrists in one bloc with INL, reform movement,” 2/2/09
Cocks, Tim, “Vote sows seeds of greater calm in Iraq’s north,” Reuters, 2/2/09
Farrell, Stephen, “Election: What The Papers Say,” Baghdad Bureau Blog, New York Times, 2/2/09
Hendawi, Hamza and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Momentum builds for a self-ruled southern Iraq,” Associated Press, 1/16/09
Ibrahim, Waleed, “’Surprise’ poll victories strengthen Iraq’s Maliki,” Reuters, 2/1/09
International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes,” 1/27/09
Knights, Michael and McCarthy, Eamon, “Provincial Politics in Iraq: Fragmentation or New Awakening?” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 2008
Londono, Ernesto, “In Iraq’s north, a defining vote,” Washington Post, 2/2/09
Niqash, “accord and reform bloc,” 1/28/09
- “the hadbaa national list,” 1/28/09
- “the shaheed al-mihrab list,” 1/28/09
- “state of law coalition,” 1/28/09