Third Time's the Charm (Maybe): A Look at the Recent, Unpredictable Iraqi Elections
By James Fromson '13
Anyone who claims to know which party will emerge victorious in the 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections warrants skepticism. This is even truer of anyone who prognosticates Iraq’s trajectory in the ensuing days. Yet the inscrutable nature of Iraqi politics should not deter analysis of the events and issues at stake.

First, a brief summary of the events to date: campaigning for 2010 began almost immediately after the 2009 provincial elections that were widely considered a triumph for Prime Minister Maliki’s allegedly secular, but decidedly Shiite, Rule of Law coalition. The main challengers to Maliki’s coalition are not new to Iraqi politics. Ayad Allawi, the former interim Prime Minister, heads up the al-Iraqiya party, which, although led by a secular Shiite, draws its support from the Sunni north and west. In addition, the Iraqi National Alliance, comprised of the Sadr Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, represents established, conservative Shiite interests. The Kurds, reliably voting in a unified bloc in national elections, form the fourth party in contention for a major portion of the seats in play.

Despite a rash of assassinations and instances of intimidation in the months leading up to the elections, Election Day itself was notably tranquil. Scattered attacks throughout Baghdad and several northern cities killed 38 people, but this relatively low number was widely hailed as a triumph of the fledgling Iraqi security forces’ ability to provide order without the assistance of U.S. forces. Turnout (estimated at 62 percent) was slightly lower than in 2005, but, unlike then, no single ethno-sectarian group boycotted the polls.

Preliminary results revealed surprising showings from several parties — especially those of Allawi and Sadr. As of several days ago, Allawi was in the lead in total votes (a largely symbolic measurement, as parliamentary seats are divvied, much as in the U.S., based on victories in individual provinces) while Maliki retained a lead in provinces won, and thus in total seats. Sadr, very much a dark horse candidate due to his organization’s lack of cohesion and its well-earned reputation for radicalism and militancy, is projected to win at least 40 seats.

In analyzing the results, a brief disclaimer: which party ultimately wins is significant but not decisive, since none will be able to form a government on its own. That is, the best each party can hope for is a large plurality, through which it could shape post-election wrangling for government posts. It is this possibility of factional wrangling that is of particular interest.

The early stages of the campaign were characterized by broad appeals to national unity by both the Maliki and Allawi factions. These, however, predictably gave way to reflexive sectarianism as Election Day approached. The decision by Shiite politician (and perpetual thorn in America’s side) Achmed Chalabi to extra-judicially bar hundreds of Sunni candidates from the election on flimsy charges of Baathist activity led to a vote that seems to have split along disappointingly sectarian lines.

The moment the sectarian nature of the vote became apparent, media commentary was rife with speculation. The commentariat, typified by the Foreign Policy blogger Tom Ricks, began to predict a renewal of sectarian bloodletting as was seen in 2003 and 2006. In his vision, the political vacuum caused by the delay in forming a new government (not to mention sore feelings from the negotiations themselves) will enable insurgent groups to regain the offensive, even as U.S. troops prepare to leave the country, as stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). This, in turn, would have a cascading effect on Iraqi security and U.S. policy; the gains of 2007-2008 would be rolled back, and American forces would be caught with one foot out the door just as they were needed again.

There are two main reasons to be skeptical of Ricks’ vision of the future. First, the Iraqi political class will prove more amenable to compromise than widely believed both because they have spent the past year gaming out possible coalition groupings and because Iraqis have begun to take pride in the way things are going. In fact, they are even more terrified than U.S. officials about seeing a return to the dark days of 2006. Second, if no compromise is forthcoming and things do take a turn for the worse, the Obama administration is willing to be as flexible as necessary to preserve security in Iraq, even if that means abrogating SOFA and maintaining or even increasing troop levels. In the end, the current hand-wringing and breathless predictions of doom will come to very little, and I predict we will see a new government formed within two or three months.

Issue 19, Submitted 2010-03-24 02:56:00