niqash | Saleem al-Wazzan | Basra | 20.03.2009Following January’s provincial elections which handed victory in Basra province to the State of Law coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, parties and analysts are waiting to see what shape the new local government will take. Despite the coalition’s overwhelming victory (winning 20 out the province’s 35 seats) there are indications that the party may reach out to form a grand coalition of parties to govern local institutions.
During a business and private sector conference looking at reconstruction in the province held in March – the first public event attended by the newly elected council - , Dr. Shiltagh Abboud Sharad, head of the province’s State of Law coalition said that “there are intentions to involve candidates who lost elections in the local administration of Basra’s government.”
Politicians and analysts say that Sharad’s statements represent an attempt by al-Maliki to unite and contain all parties, including former adversaries, under his own leadership.
A leading member of Iyad Allawi’s National Accord Movement, which won two seats in the council and who preferred to remain anonymous said that despite its election victory "the Dawa Party lacks popular support in Basra and its victory in the elections was a result of the Knights Assault Operation which resulted in security and stability and ended the dominance of militias, rather than its organized presence or the popularity of its local leaders."
According to the politician the State of Law coalition will be unable to govern effectively without drawing in broad support through coalitions with other parties.
“The Dawa party will not be able to lead the multi-party province alone, and it is aware of this fact,” he said. “For this reason it attempted to build coalitions with the Sadrists during and after elections, with the Gathering for Justice and Unity and the Awlad Amer tribe. It is now seeking to expand the network of these alliances.”
Other observers in Basra say that al-Maliki is trying to broaden the governing coalition to ensure that he does not bear the political consequences of the coming economic burden and associated hardships by himself.
Theoretically, the State of Law coalition has a strong opportunity to rearrange institutions which were shared by local parties and militias over the past six years for its own benefit. The new provincial council has unprecedented powers including the appointment of managers in government institutions, control over local security forces and the power to directly implement local projects.
However, the reality of the developing economic crisis and falling oil prices suggests hard times ahead for the new council.
“Any future local administration will face difficult challenges because the honeymoon of huge budgets has gone for ever and the allocations for provinces have decreased with the decline in oil prices,” said Khazal Yasir, an economist. “There are huge service related problems and the basic infrastructure of economic institutions, especially oil and gas, are facing almost complete economic collapse.”
According to Yasir the council will have to lay off a large number of employees as a result of the challenging economic climate and he said “it is of no interest to any party to be solely responsible for such decisions.”
For parties that did badly in January’s elections the offer to join a broad-based governing coalition offers a chance to maintain influence. Among these parties is the Islamic Fadhila party which, despite its dominance of the council since 2005, suffered a huge loss and won only one seat.
“We are ready to enter into a coalition with the State of Law coalition and with other forces according to their programs,” said Fadhila MP Jaber Khalifah Jaber. Analysts say that Fadhila party has presented modest demands to al-Maliki on the back of their electoral defeat.
Only the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council (SIIC), the traditional competitor of al-Maliki’s Dawa Party in the Shiite South which won five seats in the election, does not seem to be preoccupied with entering a coalition. The SIIC has not yet announced its intentions regarding its post-election strategy in the province. Some information suggests that the SIIC has not yet overcome the shock of its electoral defeat.
During a strategy meeting held in early March Niqash has learnt that SIIC leaders stressed the importance of introducing strong charismatic local representatives to lead the party in Basra and other southern provinces. Discussion also focused on al-Malki’s ability to fill the political space separating Islamists and secularists through his nationalist rhetoric.
Pending the announcement of alliances, sources from the State of Law coalition told Niqash that al-Maliki has decided to appoint Jaber Ameen Jaber, a leading member of the Dawa Party – Iraq’s organization, to the post of Governor. Nizar al-Jabiri, an independent from the coalition will be appointed Deputy-Governor and Dr. Shiltagh Abboud, from the Dawa Party, will be appointed Council Chairman.
The State of Law coalition now hopes that with a strong and broad-based position in Basra it can consolidate its position in the province before parliamentary elections scheduled for December.