April 19, 2013
By Stephen Wicken
Iraqis in 12 provinces will vote tomorrow in the first elections since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011. The provincial elections – the third set of such elections since 2005 – will elect 447 provincial council members from more than 8100 candidates. 265 political entities (certified political parties or individual candidates) were registered by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), most of them joining one or more of the 50 registered political coalitions. The provincial councils to which the candidates will be elected function much like state legislatures in the United States, electing provincial officials and issuing provincial legislation. Elections will not be taking place in Kirkuk province, while voting in the predominantly Sunni Arab provinces of Anbar and Ninewa, where demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been ongoing since December, was postponed, ostensibly for reasons of security.
The elections will constitute a key test for Maliki, who has centralized power heavily around his personal office, creating a de-facto majority government. Maliki’s State of Law Alliance is competing separately in 10 predominantly Shi‘a Arab provinces, and as part of large pan-Shi‘a coalitions in the Sunni-majority provinces of Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Ninewa. As Marisa Sullivan writes in her new report, “Maliki’s Authoritarian Regime”: “The prime minister is determined to avoid a repeat of the 2010 election, where he came in second place … Maliki’s control of the state gives him a powerful network of patronage and other resources to use in the upcoming elections. With few checks on his power already and a fractured political opposition, Maliki is already poised to do well in the provincial vote, particularly in the Shi‘a-dominated areas of central and southern Iraq. A strong performance in the provincial elections … would set him up well for 2014 parliamentary elections.”
In a new article focused specifically on these elections, “Iraq’s Provincial Elections and Their National Implications,” Ahmed Ali notes, “Iraq enters these elections at a decisive moment. Unlike 2009, Maliki has now firmly consolidated his power in the face of a weak and divided opposition. The Iraqi Sunnis feel marginalized by the Baghdad government and have resorted to protests to express their dissatisfaction. The Iraqi Kurds feel threatened by Maliki and his policies and have decided to consolidate relations with Turkey to counter Baghdad’s policies. For the Iraqi Shi‘a, Maliki’s dominance in state institutions signals to them that he is not interested in power-sharing, but rather in establishing himself as the leader of the Iraqi Shi‘a community. Provincial election outcomes will signal to Maliki how aggressively he can pursue his majoritarian objective. Washington and the international community should pay close attention to these elections and their aftermath.”
Over 600,000 members of Iraq’s security forces voted in a special ballot on April 13, in order to be available to protect voters on April 20. Given Maliki’s personalized control over the security forces, many of his political opponents have voiced fears that commanders loyal to Maliki pressured members of the military and police to vote for Maliki’s candidates. Ali al-Timimi, an MP belonging to the Ahrar bloc, the political wing of the Sadrist Trend that is likely to be Maliki’s key competitor for Shi‘a Arab votes, has claimed that a number of abuses took place in voting centers in Baghdad on April 13, including security officers forcing their troops to vote for a particular list and election materials for Maliki’s coalition being displayed inside voting centers. The Mutahidun, the coalition headed by Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Maliki’s key Sunni Arab rival, has argued that similar practices took place in Mosul. According to one source, an officer in the 17thBrigade of the Iraqi Army, stationed in Baghdad, has admitted that the brigade’s deputy commander ordered subordinates to vote for Maliki’s list. Although IHEC has denied that any “serious electoral or security breaches” occurred on April 13, rumors of such practices raise serious concerns about the integrity of the elections, not only during special voting but also on April 20, when the same security forces will be present in order to guard polling centers.
Such a security presence is necessary, however, given what appears to be an escalation in violence across Iraq in the run-up to the elections. A number of electoral candidates have been assassinated ahead of the elections, while workers at polling centers in Baghdad and Diyala have resigned after receiving death threats from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In addition to targeting government officials, security forces, and Shi‘a civilians, AQI opposes Sunni Arab participation in Iraq’s political process. The group is likely behind a number of spectacular attacks in recent days, particularly a wave of coordinated car bombs that killed at least 31 people across Iraq on April 15.
AQI has also sought to infiltrate and radicalize anti-government protests ongoing in Sunni-majority provinces, particularly in Fallujah in Anbar province, historically a hotbed of insurgency. Although attempts to incite violence among protesters have met with extremely limited success thus far, the protesters remain divided over their approach to the political process and to negotiation with the Maliki government. The Ramadi protest appears to be the center of a more moderate faction, represented by the Sunni religious establishment and Nujaifi’s Mutahidun, that opposes Maliki and is reticent about negotiation but rejects violence. The Fallujah protest, meanwhile, increasingly appears more hardline. As election results are released, reactions from these and other protest sites in other majority-Sunni areas may be important harbingers of the future of the protest movement, as well as indicators of how voting will play out in Anbar and Ninewa when elections are allowed to take place there.
As Ahmed Ali notes, “the outcome and the process will carry lessons for the 2014 national elections. IHEC’s technical abilities will be tested, and its willingness to remain independent will be an opportunity to correct any mistakes before the 2014 elections. Additionally, the results of the elections can redraw Iraq’s political map. National figures like Maliki, Nujaifi, and [Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq leader] Ammar al-Hakim boost their coalitions when they campaign for them. Nonetheless, the results will demonstrate if their national appeal can overcome the voters’ assessment of the local candidates representing them. Similarly, the results will show if national election themes will trump voters’ local grievances and issues.”