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iraqi opinion poll
the people want electricity, they don’t care if a dictator brings it

Cathrin Schaer
A recent opinion poll showed some glaring inconsistencies. Iraqis think the current PM ‘acts like a dictator’. But they also think the country is going in the right direction. Will they give up their…
14.06.2012  |  Berlin

A recent study of Iraqi political opinions has resulted in some apparently disparate opinions. While on one hand, nearly a third of the Iraqis polled believe that current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the politician most likely to be “acting like dictator”, around half of the respondents also approve of the job that al-Maliki is doing; many of them believe that Iraq is going in the right direction.

And where, on one side, over a third of the respondents believed that al-Maliki is “more interested in power than helping” the people of Iraq, a huge majority – around three quarters of those polled – said they thought it “was more important to have a strong leader to keep Iraq stable, even if that means giving up some freedoms”.

In general, the survey found that, despite the various concerns that the Iraqis polled had about their leader and about problems in Iraq, al-Maliki’s political party, the Dawa party, would still be very popular if an election was held today.

To outsiders, such apparently confounding survey results are hard to interpret. Quite possibly they are an obvious reflection of widely different feelings in the different regions in which the study was conducted, regions where conditions vary greatly. They may also be the result of the various historical and cultural factors –for instance, long years under a dictator, where as New York Times’ international affairs columnist, Renard Sexton, writes, “stability and progress are often invoked as rationales … Especially during times when stability and internal coherence were (often rightly) deemed to be the keys to survival of a group, nation or tribe”.

The study was commissioned by a US-based, non-profit organisation, the National Democratic Institute, which works “to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide”. It was conducted by a US-based political research institute, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which “specializes in political polling and campaign strategy”.

Working together with local researchers, the poll was conducted with 36 focus groups from right around Iraq – it surveyed opinions from around 2,000 individuals, including specially selected minority focus groups, over the space of three years. The results were released in April 2012.

One analyst, Haider al-Hamoudi, an assistant law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who helped review the Iraqi Constitution in Baghdad in 2009, believes that some of the results toward the end of the published survey indicate something important about the Iraqi desire for federalization – that is, that the majority of the Iraqi people are not interested in splitting the country up into separate, more autonomous states that operate in a similar way to the way Iraqi Kurdistan now operates. The semi-autonomous northern state of Iraqi Kurdistan has its own government, military and legislation.

At one stage, al-Hamoudi writes, it was thought that the country would split along sectarian lines with Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims establishing their own states. But according to the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey, almost 70 percent of Iraqis do not want this to happen. The major exception is in the north, among those from Iraqi Kurdistan, who seem to favour federalism.

On the other hand though, the survey would also seem to indicate that on the whole, Sunni Muslims feel disenfranchised by the current, governing Shiite Muslim-led coalition and that many also think that Iraq is a nation divided along sectarian lines.

Perhaps one of the clearest findings of the survey, where the results don’t really contradict one another, is where Iraqis talk about what they want from the Iraqi government. Unemployment, the provision of jobs and state services – in particular, such things as regular electricity supply - are the major concerns for most Iraqis living outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the situation is more positive. Next biggest concerns are security (although many think this has improved) and the level of corruption in Iraqi society.

Expert on Iraqi affairs, Reidar Visser, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, remains sceptical about the poll. In Iraq, problems with methodology for opinion polls like this are exacerbated by security problems and the lack of an opportunity to speak with a truly representative portion of the population, Visser explains to NIQASH. “In the past, such Iraqi opinion polls have proven highly unreliable as forecasters of issues like the creation of federal regions as well as the outcome of elections,” he writes in an e-mailed interview.

However, Visser does find one point particularly noteworthy. “That is the generally optimistic mood among parts of the population [which] is backed up by scattered evidence from other sources,” notes the specialist on the history of the state in the modern Middle East, who has also authored several books on Iraq and who publishes on his own respected website, Gulf Analysis.

“For example,” he continues, “other sources similarly indicate that some of the southern governorates are expressing satisfaction with a somewhat improved security situation away from the capital.”

A range of other information also seems to concur with the findings of the survey that say that, at the moment, Iraqis care more about better services and better security than they do about “the nature of the Iraqi democracy,” Visser says. And, “this may explain why Maliki may appear to have some popular backing - despite the concerted efforts by his enemies to unseat him.”