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election coalitions indicate depth of Iraq’s sectarian divide

Mustafa Habib
As political groups re-arrange themselves for Iraq’s provincial elections in April, one thing is clear: sectarian sentiments that once played out violently on the streets will recur - but this time, at the…
14.03.2013  |  Baghdad

The candidate and coalition lists for April’s provincial elections have been released. The elections, which will decide who takes power within Iraq’s provincial authorities, are due to be held in late April and, according to documents released by IHEC, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, there are 15 coalitions competing, made up out of 265 political parties and over 8,000 candidates.

The nature of those coalitions indicates the continuation of the religious sect-based party politics that have dominated Iraq’s political scene for decades. But what is perhaps interesting is the different understandings these parties have reached in order to compete in these elections.

Geographically Iraq is now divided into its different majority sects, with Shiite Muslim majorities dominating in some areas and Sunni Muslims dominating in others. In the areas where there is a Shiite Muslim majority, the Shiite Muslim political parties will be competing against one another. In areas where there is not, they have formed alliances so that they can stand together to compete against Sunni Muslim parties. And the Sunni Muslim dominated political parties are doing the same, in reverse.

The official map of political alliances shows that Shiite Muslim parties will compete against one another in the nine Shiite Muslim-majority provinces of Wasit, Karbala, Babel, Missan, Qadisiya, Najaf, Dhi Qar, Muthana and Basra.

Meanwhile Sunni Muslim parties will compete against one another in the Sunni Muslim-majority provinces of Anbar, Mosul, Diyala and Salahaddin. The capital city, Baghdad, which is home to a wider mixture of sects, religions and even ethnicities, remains a more difficult prospect for both sides.

In the Shiite Muslim-dominated provinces there is fierce competition between three Shiite Muslim political groups: the State of Law coalition led by the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrist bloc, which is led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Each of these three large groups has chosen to compete against the others in Shiite Muslim-dominated areas. They have also formed alliances with smaller Shiite Muslim groups inside those areas. And usually these alliances have been formed in terms that favour the larger blocs.

The State of Law bloc – whose mainstay is the Dawa party led by Iraq’s current Prime Minister al-Maliki – claims that it is popular enough to win on its own in Shiite Muslim dominated areas. It doesn’t need to form any kind of alliance and the party faithful tout the results of the 2009 provincial elections as proof. In 2009, the State of Law was able to send governors to five capital cities: Baghdad, Wasit, Diwaniya (the capital of Qadisiya), Karbala and Basra.

“The party has a broad popular base that allows it compete in the elections solo and al-Maliki is so popular, the party will win in these elections too,” Mohammed al-Sahyoud, a leading member of al-Maliki’s party, told NIQASH confidently. With current protests around the country aimed at al-Maliki, it should be interesting to see if that confidence is actually well founded.

Meanwhile members of the Sadrist movement are equally convinced that they can win the elections alone in Shiite Muslim-dominated areas.

Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr are pinning their hopes on their leader’s popularity with Iraq’s poor and disadvantaged, and lower classes. “The numbers of supporters for the Sadrist bloc increase daily,” MP Amir al-Kanani, a leading member of the Sadrists, said. “Our positions in national politics and our defence of poor people’s rights mean that we can win elections without the help of others.”

As for Iraq’s Islamic Supreme Council (ISCI), this religion-based party -one of the most powerful forces in Iraqi politics until 2009, after which time it became far less successful - can only try to make up for losses incurred in the previous provincial elections.

However, despite talk of going it alone, the three major Shiite Muslim groups also know they don’t stand much of a chance working by themselves in Sunni Muslim-dominated areas. And they have joined forces in the four Sunni Muslim provinces of Mosul, Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala in an attempt to get on the local councils there.

For example in Salahaddin – formerly a stronghold for Sunni Muslim leader, Saddam Hussein – Shiite Muslim parties, including al-Maliki’s Dawa party, the ISCI and the Badr organisation, which was formerly part of the ISCI, have come together to form what they’re calling the Salahaddin Alliance. In Ninawa, the same groups make up the Ninawa Alliance, where they will compete for provincial power in Mosul.

On the other side of the sectarian divide, the Sunni Muslim-dominated parties are playing a similar game. They will compete individually in provinces with a Sunni Muslim majority but in Shiite Muslim dominated areas they will form an alliance and work together.

In those areas Sunni-Muslim-dominated parties, including those led by senior politicians like Saleh al-Mutlaq, the Iraqi Parliament’s speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi – will get together as the United Iraq Coalition.

In Sunni-Muslim dominated provinces, and in Baghdad, they will compete separately because they all expect different levels of popularity there.

Idan al-Mulla, a candidate for the Iraqiya bloc in the Sunni Muslim-dominated region of Salahaddin, said that all of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim parties had agreed to compete separately in different areas – despite the fact that they all belong to one parliamentary bloc, Iraqiya.

“Sunni parties have different levels of popularity and presence in different areas,” al-Mulla told NIQASH. “For example, one party is most popular in Salahaddin whereas the party headed by Osama al-Nujaifi is more popular in Mosul [in Ninawa]. And then the Iraqi Islamic Party [one of Iraq’s biggest Sunni Muslim parties] is very popular in Anbar province.”

Doing this was a smarter way to compete for voters, he said, because “these new alliances allow parties and blocs to compete together where they lack support and to win voters more easily where they do have support.”

“In the southern provinces, we have formed alliances,” MP Hamid al-Mutlaq of the Iraqiya bloc explained. “And we have also built coalitions with liberal and civil political forces participating in the elections for the first time.”

As for Iraq’s other important political force, that consisting mainly of politicians of Kurdish ethnicity, this group is only planning to put up candidates in provinces that are close to their semi-autonomous state, Iraqi Kurdistan. In particular this means Diyala and Mosul. Their coalition – named the Brotherhood and Coexistence Alliance – will also compete in Baghdad and Salahaddin.

As long-time Iraqi observer, Reidar Visser, has noted on his blog, “the majority of these contests [during the provincial elections] will be of an intra-sectarian nature. To some extent, the electorate will give their verdict on four years of rule by al-Maliki allies …The concomitant sectarian infighting can perhaps have some positive impact on an Iraqi political situation,” Visser continued; by this, he meant that if Shiite Muslim politicians are competing with Shiite Muslim politicians, they will possibly be forced to campaign on genuine issues like electricity supply and unemployment – rather than, as Visser puts it hiding “behind empty sectarian rhetoric” and the “standard shouting match about who hates Baathists the most”.

Other than these three major forces though, other Iraqi political parties don’t seem to be making any great inroads into 2013’s provincial elections – despite their best efforts. That includes more secular, civil society-oriented and liberal parties.

The most prominent of these is probably Iraq’s Communist Party; other peripheral parties like this include the National Democratic Party headed by Nasir al-Jadirji and the so-called Democratic Bloc, which has a number of smaller parties as members. As yet none of the latter are represented at either federal or provincial level. Nonetheless several of these parties are still holding out hope that Iraqi voters may finally see the light and turn to them, having witnessed what little progress major parties have made toward satisfying the Iraqi citizenry’s basic needs over the past few years.

Currently local political analysts are not in too much doubt as to who the biggest winners will be after this year’s provincial elections: most likely it will be those groupings with a Shiite Muslim or Sunni Muslim majority, and they’ll win in the corresponding areas.