As Iraq gears up for general elections scheduled for April 30, the political constellation that has allowed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stay in power for two terms is realigning in unexpected ways, raising questions about Maliki’s ability to retain Iraq’s top job.
Apart from the similar
context of violence
in which it will likely take place, this round of voting will be greatly different from the three other national elections held since 2005. First, the country’s political landscape is more fragmented than it used to be. Former large alliances have given way to smaller entities, even as the electoral law adopted in November 2013 gives precedence for forming a government to the largest bloc, be it an electoral coalition or one formed after the polls. Second, the decline of cross-sectarian alliances has paved the way for more intracommunal competition, especially among Shiites. Combined, this should make the post-electoral bargaining even more challenging and difficult than in 2010, and the impact of the results harder to predict.
While the Hawza—the traditional Shiite religious establishment based in Najaf—has played a prominent role in shaping the political system that followed the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003 and subsequent elections, this time it has given no voting recommendation to its followers. Its powerful leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had sought in the past to accommodate and unify antagonized Shiite positions, but he has now clearly distanced himself from the political process and more specifically from the central government’s poor performance. He also rejects the hard-line notion defended by Islamists of establishing a religious state in Iraq. Sistani made it clear this year that he will not support any specific party or coalition.
Three main forces are thus left competing within the Shiite political arena: Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, the Sadrist current and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), run by Ammar al-Hakim. These forces follow quite opposed ideological and political agendas and are themselves riddled with internal rivalries and disagreements.
Since Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to withdraw from politics in February, debates have been ongoing as to the future of his movement. While some argue that Sadr’s abrupt move put an end to Sadrism, others believe that it is only a tactic for the popular Shiite leader to reposition himself ahead of the polls, both on the national scene and among his supporters. Lending credibility to the latter hypothesis, Sadr has remained politically active in spite of his announcement and is still the sharpest critic of Maliki, whom Sadr has called both a dictator and a tyrant. Sadr has also dissociated himself from other figures within his movement allegedly involved in cases of political and financial corruption.
Sadr’s changing attitude, however, is not fully devoid of risks. In fact, it has left part of his electorate confused and disoriented ahead of the polls. Moreover, many Shiites had lent their support to the Sadrist-led al-Ahrar parliamentary bloc by association with Sadr and his movement’s narrative, as opposed to other, relatively unknown politicians. Sadr’s refusal to allow his name to be used by any organization or entity, including al-Ahrar, highlights his desire to regain control over his base according to his own terms. Meanwhile, Sadrist militants have taken to the streets in Baghdad and several Shiite provinces to denounce the government and remobilize as the elections approach.
The ISCI-dominated Citizen Coalition, which unites 18 other parties, ranked second in the 2013 provincial elections and today seeks to regain the standing it lost after its electoral failure in 2010. The list comprises a number of influential candidates, including Ahmed al-Chalabi. It primarily focuses its program on state reform, and has preferred a more moderate and conciliatory outlook in order to appeal to broader sectors of the Shiite population. It presents itself as a reliable successor to Maliki, but one that will not repeat the latter’s political mistakes. Contrary to Baghdad’s policy of recentralization of national political power, the ISCI favors more decentralization and hopes to garner greater support from Iran
Despite breakaway trends and serious rivals, Maliki’s coalition, which brings together the Dawa party and Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani’s Independents, still appears to be the best-placed bloc to win the elections, or at least to have the greatest ability to form a viable coalition in their wake. Of all the candidates, Maliki enjoys the most support from Tehran and Washington, and the prime minister has skilfully weakened other contenders. Beyond his maneuvers to avoid the rebirth of a strong Sunni leadership and his tense relations with Kurdish parties, he has sought to neutralize Shiite competitors by describing them as incapable of wielding power. Militias such as the Badr Organization, the former military wing of the ISCI, and the Sadrist offshoot Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (the League of the Righteous), have become allies of the prime minister. While running separately, they will most likely remain politically aligned with him.
Against the backdrop of a fully reshuffled electoral deck, Maliki’s attempt at a third term and the deepening rift between his partisans and opponents will decisively determine the alliances that should emerge from the April 30 balloting. The Sadrists and ISCI are already considering the revival of their former National Alliance to oppose a common Shiite front to Maliki’s unrelenting search for power. Those two will likely cooperate after the elections, possibly in coordination with some Kurdish and Sunni parties. Maliki’s adversaries could also take advantage of divisions within the prime minister’s own bloc, in particular if Dawa members were to believe that a renewed premiership for Maliki would marginalize them.
To maintain his hold on power, however, Maliki enjoys two key assets: the current legislation, which, absent provisions for term limits, allows for his prolonged stay in office, and the Iraqi military, which he has placed under tight control. The implications are not necessarily reassuring, whether for his opponents or for hopes for sustained democracy in Iraq.
Myriam Benraad is a specialist on Iraq at Sciences Po-Paris (CERI) and a policy fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, June 2006 (Defense Department photo by Staff Sgt. James Sherrill).