Provincial Elections in Iraq
Blow to Confessionalism

The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has emerged the clear victor from the country's recent provincial elections. With their vote for Maliki's "State of Law" coalition, the Iraqis have confirmed his pragmatic policy of reconciliation and struck a blow against the religious parties. By Loay Mudhoon

Photo montage of Nuri al-Maliki in front of an Iraqi flag (photo: DW)
Clear winner: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’a "State of Law" coalition now holds 126 of a total of 440 seats

​​Few political observers and Iraq experts had expected the elections in Iraq to go as smoothly as they did, much less reckoned with a surprisingly clear confirmation of the government’s pragmatic policy of reconciliation.

Yet the new Iraqi Republic experienced the most peaceful elections since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki emerging as the clear victor.

His "State of Law" alliance, a coalition of minor parties and a number of "independents" led by his small "Dawa" party, not only emerged as the strongest force in Baghdad, but also dominated in numerous other provinces.

Vote for a strong centralised state

The main loser in these first nationwide elections in three years, which are seen as a key test of the security situation and the functioning of the new Iraqi state in the run-up to the parliamentary elections at the end of the year, are Maliki's two religiously oriented competitors in the Shi'a camp: the movement led by radical preacher Muktada al-Sadr and the "Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq" (ISCI) led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim, which suffered drastic losses in its stronghold of Basra.

With their vote in favour of a strong centralised government, the Iraqis have dealt a clear blow to the religiously oriented parties and their ideas of dividing the country along confessional lines.

The "Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq" in particular had campaigned on a ticket of uniting nine provinces with Shi'a majorities to form an autonomous region, based on the Kurdish model in northern Iraq.

The election results can therefore be interpreted as a clear vote in favour of a strong centralised state based on a pan-Iraqi form of interdenominational nationalism.

A reawakening of Iraqi nationalism

Al-Maliki's rise to the top is no doubt primarily down to his success in returning peace and order to the country. He has shown great skill in playing the Iraqi nationalism card and asserting himself against both the USA and the political competition striving for autonomy on the home front.

Iraqi woman casting her vote (photo: AP)
In the western Anbar Province, populated almost entirely by Sunni Arabs, the representatives of the tribal militias are now the strongest political force

​​One indication of this strength is the fact that he fought tooth and claw to stop the foundation of federal districts – although the Iraqi constitution would actually permit such a step. Moreover, directly before this key test of the government's maturity, he also demonstrated national autonomy: his authorities revoked the licence of the controversial US security firm "Blackwater".

Added to that, he boosted his recognition and authority across the country with successful large-scale military operations against militia in the Shi'a stronghold of Basra and in Baghdad. The Iraqis' longing for a slice of normality in the wake of an emotionally exhausting civil war was certainly on his side.

In short, his strategy of presenting himself as the great reconciler across party lines, rescuing the country from chaos after years of civil war, has paid off.

Return of Sunnis renders system more representative

Alongside the success of nationalist-oriented parties, the return of the Sunnis to Iraq's post-war political system has to be regarded as one of the greatest accomplishments of the al-Maliki government.

In contrast to the first provincial and parliamentary elections in January 2005 – which were boycotted by Arab Sunnis across the board, leading to distorted results, particularly in the provinces with large Sunni populations – numerous Sunni representatives took part in this election.

The "Awakening Councils", a militia set up by the Sunni tribes, which has successfully fought Al Qaeda terrorists in the Sunni Triangle, scored the highest outcome in the Sunni camp.

This new political factor with its tribal influences is likely to establish itself on the political stage in the long term, rendering the Iraqi political system more representative – even though election turnout in Anbar was a low 40 percent.

For al-Maliki, the return of the Iraqi Sunnis is highly significant, as the country's Arabs are not particularly interested in federalist models such as those the Kurds and Shi'a parties are calling for, instead seeing their future in a strong centralised government.

By collaborating with the prime minister, they hope to gain a greater share of the oil income of a centralised Iraqi republic.

The next stop along the road to the sustainable consolidation of Iraq and its democratic institutions is the parliamentary elections at the end of this year. Provided they too go peacefully, one can assume that the Iraqis see democracy as bringing better opportunities for the future rather than decline of the state, chaos and terror.

Yet the security situation is still fragile, the state institutions are corrupt and al-Maliki displays authoritarian traits – all of which does little to dispel major doubts over the further course of the political process in Iraq.

Loay Mudhoon

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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