Unlike in 2005, when the grand Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), triumphed as one bloc, January’s elections will see competition between these two major Shiite parties.
The UIA which fought the first parliamentary elections as a united coalition has in recent months seen its unity disintegrate. It has undergone several ruptures as conflict between its two main parties, the Daawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim’s SIIC has seemingly led to a final divorce and the creation of two competing electoral slates.
For January’s election, the balance of power in Karbala – as across much of the Shiite south - can now be divided into two major blocs. The first bloc is led by the Daawa party. This ‘Rule of Law Coalition’ is formed of six other parties: the Daawa Party – Iraq Organization, the Gathering of the Independents, headed by oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani who is close to the influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Solidarity bloc led by MP Qasim Daoud, the Shaaban Intifada, the Fayli Kurds Brotherhood Movement and the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkmen.
On the other side stands the SIIC-led coalition, the ‘Shahid al-Mihrab’ (Martyr of the Pulpit) coalition, which is made up of five other parties: the Shahid al-Mihrab stream and the Badr Organization, both of which are directly affiliated with the SIIC, the Independent Group led by Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Hezbollah Movement led by Karim Mahood al-Muhammadawi and the Sayyed al-Shuhada’ Movement (Master of Martyrs).
Other smaller coalitions and parties, even though they are supported by well-known tribal figures, do not seem to carry much weight in the city.
This rupture which threatens to change the shape of Iraqi politics has emerged as a result of conflict over several issues says Muhammad al-Amiri, the director of Karbala’s Daawa Party office.
The first division appeared when the SIIC opposed the provincial laws submitted by the government, especially an article granting the Prime Minister the authority to dismiss elected governors if they break the law. The SIIC said that this measure was an attempt by al-Maliki to secure greater power for himself and move towards centralization. In contrast the SIIC is seeking to establish a Shiite federal region in central and southern areas and to weaken the powers of the Prime Minister.
This gap grew wider when the SIIC objected to the adoption of the open list system when the election law for the provincial elections was debated, in opposition once more to al-Maliki. Finally, the division became reality when the government sought to form tribal councils in provinces under SIIC control. The SIIC promptly accused al-Maliki of wanting to create the councils in order to strengthen the Daawa party prior to the elections at the expense of the SIIC, rather than to maintain security as was claimed.
A key factor in this conflict and electoral fight for power appears to be gaining the support of the influential Shiite cleric Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, or at least appearing to have his support. In reality he has not aligned with any one group. The SIIC, which is trying to give the impression that it is close to the supreme authority, has been accused by other parties of illicitly using al-Sistani’s image and name to win votes. At the same time, Al-Shahristani, the oil minister who has good relations with al-Sistani and whose party has joined the Daawa coalition, is also trying to project the impression of support from al-Sistani.
The Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Karbala has criticized the practice saying it is against the law. According to Safaa al-Musawi, head of the IHEC in Karbala, “the use of imagery and religious names are violations of electoral rules. IHEC has warned all parties against the use of such imagery and names in their campaigns.” But Baqer al-Yasiri, a Shahid al-Mihrab candidate defended the practice, saying that “the election law does not ban the use of imagery in elections and slates can use any image that expresses their convictions.”
For the moment it is unclear how this division between the Daawa party and the SIC will play out and whether it will become an institutionalized part of Iraqi political life. In Karbala at least the Daawa-led coalition says it is confident of victory. Al-Amiri, the province’s party representative, says he expects the ‘Rule of Law’ coalition to triumph in the province as it is currently the only Shiite province governed by the Daawa Party. In other Shiite areas, however, the SIIC holds great influence and could well emerge victorious. The result could play an important role in shaping Iraq’s political future.