Belated election preview: Iraq

It’s no longer really an election preview, since Iraq went to the polls on Wednesday, although it’s going to be a while before we see any results. Alternatively, it could be titled “End of the Arab Spring, part IV” (read part three here), but Iraq’s political development is very different from the rest of the Arab world, so it would be unwise to draw too many general lessons.

At the last parliamentary election, in 2010, about 90% of the seats were won by one of four alliances, as follows:

List                                                 Votes     Seats
Iraqi National Movement        24.7%      91
State of Law Coalition              24.2%      89
Iraqi National Alliance             18.2%      70
Kurdistan List                             14.6%      43

Half a dozen minor groups had the remaining 32 seats between them.

The Iraqi National Movement, which won a narrow plurality, was headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi; it was a basically secular nationalist coalition, appealing mostly to the Sunni population in the centre and west of the country. The other two largest groups were mostly Shi’ite and based in the south; the State of Law Coalition was headed by outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, while the Iraqi National Alliance included the movement headed by populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The election was in June, but it was November before agreement was reached among the parties that Maliki would stay on as prime minister, and December when his new government, including representatives of all the major parties, was sworn in.

Since then, the government has had some real achievements, negotiating the withdrawal of American troops and presiding over a sustained period of relative calm. But Maliki’s critics accuse him of growing authoritarianism in the service of a narrowly Shi’ite agenda, and since about the middle of last year there has been a sharp increase in violence, attributed to Sunni extremists linked to al-Qa’eda.

There were always two separate currents of opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq: those who contended that it would be a disaster for the country, leading to a spiral of violence and disintegration, and those who said that while it might succeed in making Iraq a better place, it was still a criminal act and would make the world as a whole more dangerous by weakening the respect for law. I belonged to the second group, but the first few years of warfare made it look as if maybe the first group was right.

Eventually, however, the mainstream Sunni elements made their peace with the new order and Iraq seemed to be settling down to a sort of normality. The underlying ethnic and religious tensions never went away, but they might have been manageable were it not for the stresses induced by the Arab Spring, and specifically the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Maliki didn’t start out as a sympathiser of the Assad regime, but as the fighting has increasingly polarised the region along sectarian lines, Iraq has become more plainly an ally of Iran, Syria and the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon – as against the Sunni axis led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf states.

Keeping Iraq together under these circumstances is going to be difficult. Nonetheless, if it’s possible, then democracy is the way to do it, and with turnout reported to be high it looks as if the Iraqis are still keen to give it a try.

Voting is by a Sainte-Laguë method of proportional representation, with open party lists, using the country’s 18 provinces (or “governorates”) as multi-member constituencies. Al-Jazeera has a graphic explaining it.

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