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Threats, Demographics, New Faces:
Why Sunni Parties Lost So Much In The 2018 Elections

Mustafa Habib
During the recent Iraqi elections, Sunni Muslim parties lost almost 20 seats in parliament. Observers and politicians are arguing about reasons for the loss, and other Sunni losses over the past decade.
24.05.2018  |  Baghdad
Unpopular: Sunni leader Osama al-Nujaifi (at lecturn) and members of his coalition.
Unpopular: Sunni leader Osama al-Nujaifi (at lecturn) and members of his coalition.

The recent Iraqi elections have resulted in a miserable outcome for the country’s Sunni Muslim politicians. Areas in Iraq that traditionally voted for Sunni parties have lost parliamentary seats they would have been assured of getting just a few years ago. There are various immediate reasons for this but it is also part of an ongoing trend, where Sunni Muslim parties and politicians are seeing diminished support.

The Sunni Muslim groups that participated in the Iraqi federal elections on May 12 managed to get a total of 47 seats. In 2014, they had 64.  

Part of this must be due to the fact that Sunni Muslim politicians have been unable to convince voters who traditionally chose them, that they should do so again. For example, one of Iraq’s best known and most senior Sunni Muslim politicians, Salim al-Jibouri joined up with the movement led by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite Muslim popular with Sunni voters because his party has a secular and civil platform. It didn’t help.

Shiite Muslim forces have used slogans about how they are responsible for the liberation of the cities but they have also used threats. 

In these elections, Allawi managed to gain only five seats. Previously he had won 21. Al-Jibouri only managed to get seven seats and he himself lost his own seat. Other Sunni Muslim parties had similarly negative results and losses, compared to previous years.

None of the Sunni Muslim politicians were pleased, especially given the high profile that some of them have. Several have called for measures to right what they see as a wrong, including a recount of ballots, a postponement of provincial elections due to be held by the end of this year and a special session of the sitting parliament to discuss all the accusations of electoral fraud currently doing the rounds. 

Some of the votes that went to Shiite Muslim parties were actually given to Sunni candidates fielded by the Shiites. But the Sunni Muslim political leaders are worried about these candidates, suspecting they will only do the bidding of their Shiite party bosses and that therefore, the Sunni voice in politics will be further diminished.

So why is this happening to Sunni Muslim parties in Iraq? And, perhaps even more importantly, why has this loss been something of a trend over the past decade?

The Sunni-majority province of Ninawa offered one of the surprises of the recent election. There, the sitting prime minister, Haider al-Abadi – a Shiite Muslim politician who heads a Shiite Muslim block – won more seats than his closest Kurdish rival. Two other Shiite Muslim alliances managed to get four seats. Meanwhile, even though prominent Sunni Muslim politician, Osama al-Nujaifi, is a local from the provincial capital, Mosul, he only managed to get three seats there.


Ayad Allawi and members of his coalition at a press conference.


Politician Nora al-Bajari, a member of al-Nujaifi’s group, Ninawa Is Our Identity, lists several reasons for her party’s failure in the province, where they should be getting more votes on a sectarian basis.

“The presence of military groups in the city, that are associated with certain political parties who come from outside the city, puts pressure on the people,” al-Bajari argues. “And there are also pressures on the people displaced from the province. This means that thousands of people were deprived of the opportunity to vote.”

Ninawa was the site of much fighting during the recent security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State – hundreds of thousands of locals were displaced and many are still living away from home or in camps. Al-Bajari doesn’t think the electoral authorities did a good enough job of making sure all of those people – many of them Sunni Muslims – were able to vote.

The loss of Sunni political power in Iraq has been something of an ongoing trend.

A civil society activist in Mosul, Abdul-Rahman al-Jibouri, agrees with al-Bajari. But he also has another explanation. “The people of this city are resentful about the local politicians because of the disasters they have had to live through,” he says. “That is why many of them decided to vote for new parties even though those new parties come from outside of the province and city. Al-Abadi’s alliance was the closest to them because locals feel grateful to him: He is seen as the man who helped push the extremists out of the city.”

The same story is repeated in other Sunni-Majority cities and provinces. For example, in Anbar, Sunni parties lost two of the 15 seats they had to al-Abadi’s Shiite Muslim alliance. In Diyala, a mixed province that has slightly more Sunnis than Kurds or Shiites, all of the Sunni parties together won six seats while the Shiite parties won seven. In Babel province, Sunni Muslim parties did not get a single seat for the first time ever, even though it is home to thousands of Sunni Muslims.

In fact, this loss of Sunni political power in Iraq has been something of an ongoing trend. There have been ups and downs in elections since 2003, but altogether over the past 13 years, the Sunni Muslim parties have lost almost half of the seats they once held, going from around 90 seats to 47 this year. 

One senior, recently elected Sunni Muslim politician has a further explanation, but one he was only willing to share on condition of anonymity: The new MP feared both retribution and being expelled from parliament.

It’s demographics, the politician said. For example, the people of Jurf al-Sakhar, in Babel, were evacuated several years ago during the security crisis. But they still have not been allowed to return. That’s just one instance the politician says, of how demographic change is starting to have an impact on political percentages. 

“Shiite Muslim forces and military have become more powerful and have more influence in Sunni parts of the country now,” the politician continued. “They have used slogans about how they are responsible for the liberation of the cities [from the Islamic State group] but they have also used threats. For example, tribes in Diyala, Salahaddin and Babel were threatened and told not to vote for Sunni Muslim parties,” he stated, although he did not present any proof.


Salim al-Jibouri (centre) and other Sunni Muslim politicians.