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Basra\'s Dominant Parties Expect to Maintain Power

Saleem al-Wazzan
With Iraq’s provincial council elections drawing near, great attention is being fixed on the province of Basra and its three million inhabitants. This will be the first electoral test in the Shiite majority…
15.12.2008  |  Basra

During the last few months, compromises and bargains between the different political forces have resulted in the registration of 79 lists, including 14 individuals, at the office of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Basra.

The election climate is similar to that of 2005 with slogans calling for an improvement in public services, the triumph of the rule of law, an end to administrative corruption and new jobs.

The fate of the province is also emerging as a key issue. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) is, for instance, calling for a strong central and southern region. Other forces, such as the recently created ‘State Party’ of Judge Wael Abdul Latif want Basra to become an independent federal region. The Sadrist movement and the Daawa Party oppose federalism.

Conflict between the Shiite parties is already very intense and some observers expect a return of violence amidst the escalating battles between the various Shiite groups.

Islamic parties are participating in the elections with greater financial resources and regional support, notably from Iran, than secular parties. They also depend on what have become known as “shadow parties,” which are small affiliated groups carrying a different name and using non-Islamic rhetoric to mobilize a larger number of voters.

The Prime Minister’s Daawa Party meanwhile is hoping to reap the benefits of the Knights Assault Campaign and al-Maliki’s popularity following his success in stamping down on Mahdi Army strongholds. Having lacked popular support in the province in previous elections, it is hoping it can now begin to establish itself. In large part the party will be depending on the votes of tribes who have joined tribal councils cautiously supported by al-Maliki.

However, despite their clashes in March 2008, informed sources close to al-Maliki have told Niqash that the Daawa party may ally with members of the Sadr movement in opposition to those calling for a stronger federal south.

“We are appraising, rather than negotiating, directly and indirectly the relations between the two parties,” said Abu Hazim, a Sadr official. “We, as well as the government, want to achieve the national interest of the country by including the Sadrist movement in the political process.” As of yet the Sadr movement have not declared their intention for the election and may compete on different lists.

The ruling Fadhila party seems to be confident of its strength. It is running on its own list and relying on the support of civil society organizations and its own administrative power. The party is focusing its election rhetoric on the oil sector and its support for a federal Basra which will channel more oil wealth to the province. But some observers believe that the party will suffer an electoral backlash because of the province’s deteriorating public services and the hostility between the Fadhila governor and the central government which has left the province semi-isolated in recent years.

Some liberal politicians are hoping for an electoral breakthrough in favor of secular forces. Nouri al-Wafi, secretary-general of the Arab Socialist Movement, believes that “the current climate is ripe for liberal and democratic forces given the rifts suffered by the Islamic front and Islamic coalitions on the one side and the wrong actions practiced by religious movements and parties holding power on the other side.”

However, other observers claim that the dominant political groupings have set up the system so as to ensure their continued dominance. According to Dr. Hamid al-Thalimi, a member of Basra’s provincial council and a leader party in Iyad Allawi’s National Accord Movement, the rules of the game as well as the ability of major religious parties to better mobilize their supporters will ensure their continued dominance.

Moreover, secular forces are themselves highly divided. The communists have withdrawn from an alliance with Allawi’s movements, accusing him of “Baathist inclinations.” At the same time the al-Qasimi stream (Abdul-Kareem Qasim, the leader of 1958 revolution and the first president of Iraq) has pulled out of an alliance with the communists.