Political fragmentation and foreign interference set the parameters of Iraqi elections

After a long debate over the appointed day, it is now clear that Iraqi parliamentary elections will be held on 12 May 2018. However, Iraq continues to suffer from issues that have implications for its democratic process and political independence.
29 January 2018
Which direction will al-Abadi go? Towards blocs with strong ties to Iran whether Shia, Kurdish or Sunni or towards independent of or hostile to Iranian influence?

After a long debate over the appointed day, it is now clear that Iraqi parliamentary elections will be held on 12 May 2018. Leaving aside the arguments of those advocating a postponement and others wishing to see elections held by their constitutional deadline, there are bigger problems being ignored, wittingly or unwittingly, in Iraqi political circles, most significantly extreme political fragmentation and blatant foreign intervention to draw the map of political forces and alliances. These two issues have implications for the very heart of the democratic process in the country and Iraqi political independence.

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq announced in mid-January 2018 that the deadline for the registration of electoral coalitions had passed; parties and individuals can continue to register until 10 February 2018. Since parties and individuals typically fare less well in elections than coalitions, we can already discern a preliminary picture of the electoral political map, with the caveat that this does not preclude alliances of another sort from taking shape after election returns come in. This was recognised by the High Constitutional Court in its famous 2010 opinion, which paved the way for a Shia parliamentary coalition and the return of Nouri al-Maliki’s return as prime minister instead of Iyad Allawi, who led the Iraqi list, then the largest parliamentary bloc.

What kind of electoral map is being drawn by the unprecedented political fragmentation in Iraq? And what role does foreign interference in Iraqi politics play fifteen years after the formation of the new Iraqi state?

Political fragmentation
According to the IHEC, 205 political parties were registered as of mid-January 2018, 143 of them part of electoral alliances or coalitions. Fifty-four coalitions were registered with the commission as electoral entities. Not all of these parties have significant popularity or electoral weight, and some have no history whatsoever, created perhaps solely for the occasion of the impending elections. Similarly, the majority of coalitions represent parties or entities known only to a few people close to their founders and are not expected to win any parliamentary seats. But it is not the large number of parties and coalitions that has made for a fragmented politics. Rather, at this electoral juncture, the fragmentation is manifested in those established forces and entities that have carved out a recognised position on the political scene over the last decade and a half, seen as the major players in the country’s politics.

Since the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) a few months after the US invasion in 2003, the Iraqi political landscape has been divided along two principal axes: communal-sectarian and ethno-national. Serious efforts were made to move beyond these sectarian and ethnic lines and build cross-communal and multi-ethnic national political frameworks, but they either had negligible impact or were short lived. The coalitions formed to compete in the May 2018 elections demonstrate the continued erosion of sectarian and ethnic cohesion, not necessarily to the benefit of national political entities, but rather toward greater fragmentation within the major communal and ethnic formations.

Iraqi Shiites are competing in elections not in one or two major coalitions, as was the case in the last three parliamentary elections, but in four coalitions, each of which brings together several political parties and groups.

The split of the Dawa Party between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has led each to form his own electoral list. Al-Maliki enters the elections as the head of the Nation of Law list, which this time includes his loyalists within the Dawa Party and some smaller Shia groups, while al-Abadi leads another coalition, the Victory list, which includes his supporters from Dawa and the Hikma current led by Ammar al-Hakim, who has split with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), as well as several smaller Shia groups and Sunni groupings with little significance in their regions. Attempting to contain the party split, the Dawa Party announced it would allow its members to join any coalition they wished, since the party itself would not compete in elections under its own name.

Given its distance from all Iran-linked forces, the Sadrist movement, which contains the Istiqamah Party, will compete in the elections as part of the Sa’irun coalition along with the Communist party, civic groups that organised the 2016 protests and several other small Shia groupings.

The paramilitary groups that formed the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) at the beginning of the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in the summer of 2015 have fielded some of their members for the elections, following their nominal resignation from the PMF, most significantly from the Badr Forces and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. They have formed yet another list. Hadi al-Amiri, the Badr Force commander and the de facto head of the PMF, leads the al-Fath al-Mubin coalition, which brings together eight factions from the PMF and ISCI, 13 parties and other political entities. The coalition presents itself as the inheritor of the role played by the PMF in the battle against IS.

Like Shia forces, Sunni parties failed to agree on a single coalition after more than a year of meetings between most parties and prominent Sunni political figures. The Qarar al-Iraqi list, led by prominent Sunni politician Osama al-Nujaifi, the former speaker of the parliament and deputy prime minister, is the most significant Sunni coalition. The list comprises several figures and small political units as well as the United for Iraq party, established by al-Nujaifi, and the Arab Current Party, founded by businessman Khamis al-Khanjar. On the other side is current parliamentary speaker Salim al-Jabouri, representing the Iraqi Islamist Party, which is close to the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, and Iyad Allawi, joining together on the National list. An unknown politician, Waddah al-Sadid, has also formed a coalition with several political groupings and figures who have little influence in Sunni-majority areas.
The Kurds, who competed in the elections as part of a single coalition last time, failed as well to come together this time. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is loyal to the Barzanis, and the Talabani-led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are expected to compete on different lists. Groups known for their rebellion against the two parties’ dominance over Kurdish politics – the Islamic Group; the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, founded by Barham Salih after breaking with the PUK and the Movement for Change, an older splinter group from the PUK – will stand in the elections in another coalition.

From one perspective, this extreme fragmentation reflects a climate of freedom and growing interest in politics. In reality, however, increased political and partisan divisions, taking place against the backdrop of an already ethnically and communally divided politics, makes forging national stability a more difficult task. It also holds the process of governance hostage to personal interests and the demands of political groups of various sizes, ultimately eroding Iraqis’ faith in the entire political process.

Foreign interference

General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and the point man for Iranian policy in neighbouring Arab countries, arrived on a surprise visit to Iraq on Saturday evening, 13 January 2018. He spent a few short hours in the capital, during which he persuaded al-Maliki to stay out of the next government and convinced most other Shia forces – the PMF led by Hadi al-Amiri, Hikma led by al-Hakim, and the ISCI led by Humam Hamoudi – to join the Victory coalition formed by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The Sadrist movement, which allegedly receives financial backing from Saudi Arabia, was not expected to join this major Shia alliance. Iranian sources speculate that the Sadrists refuse to join an alliance with the PMF, thereby frustrating Iranian policy which seeks a united Shia front.

Despite rumours over the last few months, it is not true that Iran backs al-Maliki and opposes al-Abadi and his return to the premiership, ostensibly because the prime minister has become close to the Americans, is pursuing policies independent of Iran, and is working to dissolve or contain the PMF, the bastion of Iranian influence in Iraq. Clearly, the Iranians concluded that al-Abadi would enter elections from a position of strength, while al-Maliki faces broad opposition within the country and has no hope of winning big in the elections. The Iranian view, as transmitted to al-Abadi, is that a large coalition would take 80 to 90 parliamentary seats, after which it would not be difficult to secure a parliamentary majority that returns him to the premiership. It is well know that the Kurds in Talabani’s party and the Movement for Change heed Iran’s advice, and the remaining votes needed for a majority could be picked up from various Sunni groups that are open to bargaining. As for the PMF, it was persuaded that joining the presumptive ruling coalition would be the sole guarantor for its future existence.

These arrangements were not long lived. Less than two days after an agreement was reached under the auspices of the extremely influential Soleimani, the project for a united Shia government collapsed, as both the ISCI and the PMF announced they were leaving al-Abadi’s coalition. Hadi al-Amiri said the agreement with al-Abadi did not fail for political reasons, but for purely electoral considerations, since, he said, the electoral system favours small rather than large coalitions. But this justification is wanting. Parliament has not yet approved the election law and thus the system that will be used to calculate vote shares is still uncertain. The truth is that a persistent hostility divides the PMF and the ISCI, on one hand, and al-Hakim and his current on the other, and al-Hakim’s presence in the Victory coalition was one of the reasons for the failure. Another likely reason is US pressure on al-Abadi, which led to sharp disagreements with the PMF on the order of candidates on the list.

Whatever the cause, the short-lived Iranian-sponsored agreement tarnished al-Abadi’s image as an independent national leader, which he had taken great pains to establish in the preceding months. Instead, it showed that he was no less subject to Iranian pressures than other Shia politicians like al-Maliki and al-Amiri. It also exposed al-Abadi’s willingness to align with the PMF for opportunistic political motives, especially since he has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the PMF, an official military force involving itself in politics.

Most importantly, the agreement again threw the spotlight on Soleimani as the godfather of major political projects in Iraq, demonstrating that Iran’s role in neighbouring Arab countries is not on the retreat and that it has no intention whatsoever of abandoning its influence in Iraq. This coincided with news from Iran of an impending visit by al-Abadi, for further discussions before elections. But it is not only Iran that has allowed itself to play politics in Iraq to some degree or another. Brett McGurk, the special US presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, is known in Iraq as the American Soleimani, exerting substantial influence over al-Abadi, Barzani-aligned Kurds and a number of Sunni politicians.

Iraqi sources say that the Sunni coalition led by Waddah al-Sadid, who hails from the Shamar tribe in the Anbar province, was established with the support and encouragement of the Saudis, exposing in the process Saudi Arabia’s weak influence in Sunni-majority areas. The Saudis also attempted, with limited success, to establish ties with the Sadrist movement after the Saudi Crown Prince met with Muqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah and the Saudis offered financial assistance to the movement. In contrast, people close to the national coalition, born of an alliance between Salim al-Jabouri and Iyad Allawi, say that their major source of support comes from the United Arab Emirates, while others say Jordan is behind the coalition. It is no secret that both Osama al-Nujaifi and Khamis al-Khanjar, who established the Qarar al-Iraqi coalition, maintain close ties with Turkey and several Arab states.

In short, politics and political forces in Iraq, more than fifteen years after the establishment of the new Iraqi state, remain a prisoner of foreign relations and the influence of foreign powers, whether regional or international, Arab or non-Arab. In the 2010 elections, the nationalist-oriented Iraqi list, backed by Turkey and several Arab states, came away with the biggest parliamentary bloc, but Iranian pressure and tacit US consent undermined the results of the ballot box. A Shia parliamentary coalition was formed after the elections that returned al-Maliki to premiership. Things are not much different in 2018. The ongoing, effective foreign influence in Iraq clearly indicates that the results of the coming elections will not be the sole factor determining who will govern.

The elections and possible outcomes

The Iraqi parliament failed to pass a budget bill in its long session of 17 January 2018. In another session the following day, it failed to pass an election law or agree on a date for elections. In other words, as of the final week of January 2018, the country still has no budget and the debate continues on how the elections will be convened, the seats distributed and the votes calculated. The debate over the date of the elections was mooted after the Federal Court rejected a postponement and President Fuad Masum issued a decree setting elections for 12 May 2018.

In any case, the election returns will not stray far from the outlines of the fragmented current political map. In the 2014 elections, al-Maliki and the Nation of Law coalition won 94 of 328 parliamentary seats. Neither al-Maliki nor any other coalition can pull off such a feat in the 2018 elections.

Despite the damage to al-Abadi’s image, the coalition he leads is generally expected to be the biggest bloc in the coming parliament, especially after successfully steering the government over the last years, which saw an end to IS control of more than one-third of the country and the challenge of the Kurdish referendum on independence. But at best, this bloc will take no more than 50 seats. If al-Abadi wants to hold the premiership, he must therefore seek alliances with other blocs to secure a parliamentary majority. At that point, the question will be in which direction al-Abadi decides to go: toward blocs with strong ties to Iran whether Shia, Kurdish or Sunni, or toward blocs independent of or hostile to Iranian influence. This will better expose the magnitude of US, Arab and Iranian influence in Iraq and the extent of al-Abadi’s independence and freedom from Iranian pressures and attachments.