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Post-Election Analysis
Real Change or More of the Same?

Ahmad al-Sa'dawi
Iraq’s political scene has witnessed heated debate following the announcement of the preliminary provincial election results. Winners and losers alike have been busy issuing statements in response to the political…
19.02.2009  |  Baghdad

The map of new political alliances has not yet become clear. There is strong speculation that the Sadrist-backed al-Ahrar stream will join al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition to form a strategic alliance in Baghdad, Basra and other provinces where the two lists won a majority of votes. Other unconfirmed reports include a potential link-up between the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the Iraqi National List supported by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi.

Initial speculation - based on the provincial election law which gives coalitions with 51% or more of the vote the right to form local governments – indicates that al-Maliki and supporters of a strong centralized state, such as Osama al-Najifi in Mosul, will have the chance to form new councils. However, the position of defeated parties is more complicated as these parties are trying to limit, as much as possible, the repercussions of their losses.

One day after the announcement of the provisional results, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who is also a leading member of SIIC, said that consensus should govern the political process. Abdul-Mahdi called for a strategic alliance between the two major Shiite parties (the Dawa and SIIC), similar to the union between the two major Kurdish parties.

Other leading members of the SIIC have downplayed the impact of the State of Law successes, rejecting talk of an "overwhelming" victory. They argue that the SIIC-backed Shaheed al-Mihrab list ranked second in six provinces and therefore remains an equally important force. They also criticize talk of a decline in support for the Islamic stream saying that the Islamic movement, through the Dawa and SIIC parties, did very well in the south of the country.

Yet there is no doubt that al-Maliki’s recent policies and rhetoric have projected a nationalist rather than a religious front - unlike the SIIC, which remained faithful to its religious core. Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman, said that Iraq's elections results point to a widespread desire for a ‘nationalist’ as well as a ‘religious’ discourse guiding political life, in addition to a leadership focused on imposing law and providing services regardless of ideology.

Political observers say that relations between the Dawa Party and the SIIC may now have reached a critical level. Some say there could be a split between the two major Shiite parties, which till now have been allies in the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), based on disagreements over federalism, powers of the central government and the role of religion.

Within these prevailing uncertainties of realignment the only certainty is the growing strength of the Dawa Party, now considered the biggest Shiite force in the country. While, the SIIC, which led the UIA in the previous two elections, has declined in popularity, the Sadrists continue to remain a decisive factor in determining the nature of relations between Shiite parties.

Observers are now waiting to see how these changing forces will affect local governments, especially in light of the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Already, however, some voters who were enthusiastic about the national rhetoric expressed by al-Maliki during the electoral campaign and were convinced that his victory would herald the demise of religious influence over the political scene are feeling disappointment.

Recent statements stressing the need to renew the UIA, but this time under the leadership of al-Maliki point to a transformed Shiite coalition, rather than a transformed political logic. Already Muqtada al-Sadr has expressed his stream’s readiness to participate in a new coalition and the SIIC may offer its support on the basis of the consensus principle whereby it will tender its backing in return for influence.

Moreover, the use of the consensus principle in forming local governments may strike a blow against the will of Iraqi voters who wanted meaningful change. Losers and winners will once sit again in the same boat (to share possible achievements and/or the rewards of potential corruption), suggesting that provincial policies may not change considerably.

In the end, al-Maliki’s victory will not form a victory for “change and reconstruction,” a slogan he recently adopted, but a victory of his and the Dawa party’s leadership over the Shiite political scene.

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