politicians prefer to bet on multi-cultural baghdad
As a province, Baghdad has the biggest population and therefore gets the biggest share of representative seats in Iraq’s Parliament. And unlike in other provinces, the population is far from homogenous.
Baghdad is well known as the “dark horse” of the upcoming general elections, due to be held next week on April 30. With a population of around 9 million, it is the biggest city in Iraq and its people come from every part of Iraq - they represent a wide mix of religious, political and ethnic affiliations.
As the biggest city in the country Baghdad is also allocated the most space in the Iraqi Parliament – 69 seats to be exact, with a quarter of these allocated to female politicians and another two seats allocated to Christian and Chaldean minorities. Just over 3,300 candidates are vying for a place in Parliament – most of them are men; around 1,000 are women.
Which makes Baghdad the best bet and a town of opportunity for candidates – here they all have the opportunity to compete for a quarter of all seats available, no matter what their ethnic or religious allegiance.
This plays a role in shaping local electoral strategies, writes Ahmed Ali in a detailed primer on the Iraqi elections, released this week by the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington.
Baghdad, Ali writes, “will be highly competitive, given its high population and mixed demographic. Furthermore, the changing disposition of Baghdad voters’ political inclinations makes the province more permissive for many parties. As such, elections in Baghdad may provide a lens upon the population.”
Election campaigning in Baghdad was expected to be intense and it has been. And the most intense contest has been between Iraqi politics’ traditional opponents, the Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim parties.
The most prominent Shiite Muslim coalition is still that led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This group, the State of Law alliance, has joined forces with a group led by Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister for Energy, Hussein al-Shahristani, as well as the Badr organization. The Badr Organization was once the armed military wing of another important Shiite Muslim party, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, or ISCI. After becoming a political party under the auspices of the ISCI and then defecting from there, it has now thrown its lot in with al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki does seem to be gathering up the more extreme Shiite Muslim parties – he’s also backed by the League of Righteous, an armed militia recently turned political - while those who have grown more moderate and who have called for reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunni Muslims are competing in this election independently of him. That includes the ISCI and other parties such as those affiliated with the equally significant-to-Shiite-voters Sadrist movement.
And al-Maliki has another cunning tactic for Baghdad too: He is also coming up with new campaign alliances and they’re entering the election race under different names to compete in Baghdad. This is apparently because the system used to calculate the election’s winners, known as the Sainte-Laguë system, tends to favour medium-sized parties over very small or very large ones. The Sainte-Laguë system stops larger parties from gobbling up the votes smaller parties have won, if the smaller parties haven’t won enough votes to pass a certain threshold.
There are a number of these new alliances that align themselves with al-Maliki and they’ve all chosen to compete in the elections in lists independent of the State of Law coalition. This includes groups such as Fair State, the Union for a Comprehensive Renaissance, the Virtue coalition, the White party, the People’s Gathering, the Wafaa coalition and Sadiqun (or The Truthful), the party associated with the League of the Righteous militia group.
The two other main Shiite alliances are led by the ISCI and Sadrist-affiliated politicians.
The ISCI’s Muwatin, or Citizen, coalition is particularly interesting because, despite their religious bent, they are allied with a number of more secular candidates, including professors, intellectuals and unveiled females.
Competition between the three major Shiite Muslim political groups – the State of Law list, the Citizen list and the Sadrist movement’s allies – will be particularly intense in Baghdad’s mostly Shiite neighbourhoods.
Then in terms of the Sunni Muslim parties competing in Baghdad, most of these are concentrated under the umbrella of the man who has arguably become Iraq’s leading Sunni politician, Osama al-Nujaifi; he has also been the high profile Speaker of the House since 2010. His Mutahidoun, or United, coalition includes groups headed by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and the Iraqi Islamic Party, very popular with Iraq’s Sunnis.
In Baghdad Sunni Muslim parties will be competing with one another in the mostly Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods but they’ll also be competing with their Shiite rivals in other, more mixed areas.
Another interesting religious group in Baghdad is that of Christian politicians – there are ten Christian political groups in Baghdad competing for the one quota seat allocated to them. These parties are competing for the votes of those Iraqi Christians left in Baghdad. Much of the country’s Christian minority has been displaced over the past few years – some say as many as 1 million have left – and some of the Iraqi Christian candidates actually travelled overseas to woo potential voters who emigrated.
In addition to the political blocs founded around sectarian and religious allegiances, there are also a number of secular parties competing for Baghdadi votes. A notable new group is the Civil Democratic Alliance, formed as an umbrella organisation for a number of smaller, secular parties and civil society groups. Prominent members include the Iraqi Communist Party and socialist groups and they seem to be relying on the waning popularity of Islamic parties to win votes.
Another of these groups is headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is distinguishing his party, Wataniya, from others by attempting to exclude almost all religious overtones; his candidates consist of civil society activists, women’s rights campaigners and personalities from Iraq’s secular society. It seems that Allawi wants to send a loud and clear message that he remains a liberal personality who believes in the separation of church and state.
Locals with mainly business or economic interests have also formed their own coalition for the first time, named the Iraq Coalition. It’s being led by Mahdi al-Hafeth, a well known businessman who was Minister of Planning straight after 2003’s US-led invasion of Iraq. Analysts suggest that they’ll have an impact in Baghdad because of the capital’s heavy involvement in the country’s business and economic activities. It may also have an impact because of the amount of money the business coalition is willing to spend on its campaigning here.