By Ahmed Ali
Iraq’s government formation process has begun even before official results are released. Political groups are posturing and sending early signals about their positions and ambitions. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to float the idea of a “political majority” government. His ambition will be tested by the results and his political opponents’ strong desire to weaken him. Even though Iraq’s election day was largely peaceful, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) disrupted voting in several predominantly Iraqi Sunni areas, increasing the risks of marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni population as elections results come in and coalitions are formed.
Iraq held its national elections on April 30. Election day was free from major security breaches, likely because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) increased security measures implemented prior to the vote. The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) also likely chose to avoid engaging the highly alert and widely deployed ISF units. Given the ISF’s temporary tightened measures, attackers would have been dealt serious setbacks were they to attempt directly engaging the security force. ISIS is still a major threat to Iraq’s security despite its inability or tactical decision not to launch major attacks on elections day. Importantly, ISIS was able to disrupt the electoral process before the elections took place. ISIS’ control of Fallujah since January 2014 and its subsequent anti-elections campaign had an adverse impact on voting, particularly for the Iraqi Sunnis.
Security in the Provinces
In Anbar, poor security excluded fifteen areas from voting, and displaced residents of those areas were obligated to vote in other areas of the country. In Babil’s Jurf al-Sakhar area, which ISIS has used as a support-zone, voting was not held for security reasons. On election day, ISIS reportedly sent threatening text messages to Jurf al-Sakhar’s tribal leaders warning them not to participate in elections. As a result, IHEC allowed Jurf al-Sakhar’s residents the opportunity to vote in the nearby Mussayeb area. However, it is not yet clear to what extent turnout among Jurf al-Sakhar’s voters was affected. Participation was likely depressed due to security threats and Mussayeb’s distance from Jurf al-Sakhar (approximately 15 miles).
In Ninewa, Noura al-Bachari, a candidate of the Iraqi Sunni group Mutahidun, stated that 130 voting centers were closed due to lack of employees of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). Bachari added that there was no voting in the Jazeera area due to ISIS threats. The lack of IHEC employees at voting centers was also reported in Kirkuk. If Bachari’s statements are confirmed, this prospect will deal a significant blow to the perceived legitimacy of the voting process. Such claims are bound to lead to the rejection of the results by groups affected by lowered turnout.
The Beginning of Political Posturing
According to IHEC, the overall turnout for the general elections was 60%, an encouraging sign even though this figure is two points lower compared to the 2010 national elections. The southern and northern provinces registered higher levels of participation due to better security conditions when compared to western Iraq and Ninewa province. For example, Basra in the south had a 77% turnout rate, possibly indicative of voters’ political engagement in this crucial election. However, claims disputing these turnout figures are already circulating. Senior Sadrist leader Amer al-Kanani stated that the 91% participation rate announced for ISF members is likely 10% lower and that this difference is going to be manipulated in order to alter the results. Kanani attributed his observation to local and international elections monitors’ estimates. These allegations have thus far only come from the Sadrists and have not been corroborated by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). They serve to place IHEC under scrutiny as the vote-counting process continues. If these allegations are supported, they would provide another mechanism by which the results could be disputed by less successful parties.
IHEC has indicated that the final results will be announced by the end of May. However, political groups have been leaking results based on either their own observations or anonymous IHEC sources. Many claim to have taken the lead in voting. Some of these claims may be accurate, but it will be important to wait for the official IHEC results. In 2010, the final results by IHEC presented surprises as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party garnered the highest number of seats and votes. In those elections too, political groups pre-empted the announcement of the final results with inaccurate claims that they were in the lead.
Initial Negotiating Positions of Iraqi Political Parties
May 4, 2014- May 9, 2014
May 4, 2014- May 9, 2014
Iraqi Shi’a Political Groups:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the State of Law Alliance (SLA)
Theme: Calls for majority government and attacks Mutahidun Leader Osama al-Nujaifi
MAY 08: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki strongly criticized the performance of the committees of the Council of Representatives (CoR) and its presidency. PM Maliki added that he hopes for a new presidency instead of the current arrangement, describing it as “failure.” (Al-Sumaria News)
MAY 08: PM Maliki stated that a government of political majority will not be based on “ethnic or sectarian” bases. Instead, it would be based on “principles” and “high values” under the constitution. PM Maliki added that the political majority would not exclude a “component, sect, or religion.” (Al-Sumaria News)
MAY 08: A member of PM Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), Ihsan Awadi, stated that the SLA aims to prevent the leader of Mutahidun, Osama al-Nujaifi from holding “any position,” citing the “failing experience” the alliance had with Nujaifi in the past. He added that Mutahidun does not represent a “specific component,” therefore its exclusion does not mean the exclusion of that component [likely referring to Iraqi Sunnis]. (Assafir News)
Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)
Theme: Takes anti-Maliki position but acts as bridge-builder among Shi’a groups
MAY 05: The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) parliamentary bloc leader Baqir al-Zubaidi (also known as Bayan Jabr) stated that the next Iraqi Prime Minister will be nominated by ISCI’s Citizen’s (Mowatin) Bloc, the Sadrist Ahrar, and the State of Law Alliance (SLA) of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He added that the decision will be made “according to a bilateral or trilateral agreement.” (Shafaq News)
MAY 06: ISCI leader Adel Abdul-Mahdi stated that ISCI does not support efforts to isolate the SLA in forming the new government describing such isolation as “not wise and harming, exactly like the demand for a third term [for Maliki].” (Shafaq News)
MAY 09: Spokesperson of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq Baligh Abu Galal described the possibility of securing a third term for the PM as “very difficult” adding that the PM cannot secure the majority of seats to form a government. (Assafir News)
The Sadrist Trend
Theme: Takes Extreme Anti-Maliki Position
MAY 07: Member of the Sadrist Ahrar bloc Hussein al-Sharifi stated that it is “not possible” to form the National Alliance with the participation of the State of Law Alliance (SLA). He added that the SLA will not be able to form the alliance by itself. Sharifi attributed his statement to the negative performance of the government. (All Iraq News)
MAY 09: Member of the Sadrist Ahrar bloc, Hussein al-Sharifi, stated that the “Sadrist Trend” aims to prevent the PM from securing a third term. (Al Mada Press)
Iraqi Sunni Political Groups:
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Arabiyya Alliance
Theme: Take an anti-Maliki position while opening options for negotiation
MAY 06 : Member of deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Arabiyya Alliance, Talal al-Zobaie, stated that the alliance would not support PM Maliki for a third term, adding that the alliance is in support for a non-sectarian, non-ethnicity-based “political majority government.” (Al Mada Press)
Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s Mutahidun Alliance
MAY 08: Mutahidun Alliance announced in a statement that a meeting took place between the leaders of the alliance. The statement added that a delegation was formed in order to conduct negotiations with other political parties for government-formation purposes. Meanwhile, leader in the alliance Jabr al-Jabri stated that Mutahidun “has no red lines” regarding the formation of alliances “if our demands are met,” adding that no agreement took place with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI] or the Sadrist Ahrar bloc. (All Iraq News, Al-Sumaria News)
MAY 08: Member of Mutahidun Hamza al-Girtani stated that the alliance aims to “withdraw” the premiership position from PM Maliki. Girtani added that the alliance aims to form a majority government citing the local government of Baghdad that was formed by ISCI, the Sadrist Ahrar, and Mutahidun. (Al-Sumaria News)
The Iraqi Kurds:
Theme: Reject the political majority government and demand presidency
MAY 04: The Office of the Presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan Region announced that the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Parliament must approve the nominee for the Presidency of Iraq, arguing that the position is reserved for the Iraqi Kurds “by right.” (Kurdistan Region Presidency)
May 07: Member of the Kurdistani Alliance [KA], Mahdi Haji criticized calls to form a political majority government, adding that a government “cannot be formed without the Kurds.” According to Haji, the Iraqi Kurds are not a “political party” but rather a “major ethnicity.” (All Iraq News)
A number of these post-elections statements shed light on possible initial strategies and negotiating positions for government formation. The Iraqi Kurds, for example, are seeking to maintain the position of the presidency in the federal government. Iraqi Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani has been the president of Iraq for the last eight years and, according to the Iraqi Kurds, the presidency is their “right.” The Iraqi Kurdish position faced criticism from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ally Mohammed al-Saihud, who stated that it is not a constitutional mandate to have an Iraqi Kurdish president. In addition to this challenge from Maliki’s State of Law Alliance, the issue of the presidency will be contentious among Iraqi Kurdish parties, with the PUK facing challenges from both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Gorran (Change) Movement challenge the PUK for the presidency. In addition to the Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi Sunni figures are likely to vie for the position of president in the federal government as well.
Beyond statements by figures in the different political organizations, actions by the Federal Supreme Court are also likely to affect the upcoming period of post-elections bargaining. The court issued a decision not to accept a lawsuit from Maliki against the speaker of the Council of Representatives (CoR), Osama al-Nujaifi, challenging the CoR’s inability to pass the budget. The ruling to dismiss this case was likely intended to project an image of independence for the court given its past pro-Maliki history. The court also, however, issued a decision postponing the case brought by the SLA challenging the legality of the Baghdad Provincial Council until June, after the elections results are announced. The court’s decision here means that the anti-Maliki Baghdad Provincial Council and local political positions will become a bargaining chip. The continuation of the case until June will allow the SLA to trade dropping their legal challenge to the Baghdad Council’s formation in exchange for cooperation in coalition-formation.
Political groups are currently testing the waters for their future alliances as they wait for the official results to be released. The groups anticipate a long government-formation period and are posturing to maintain their political flexibility. However, the development of an anti-Maliki front is likely to materialize, modeled after the anti-Maliki local governments that formed in Baghdad and Diyala after the 2013 provincial elections.
Prime Minister Maliki’s plan will likely continue to be floating the concept of a majority government and assessing which groups he can play against one another. Additionally, he will likely continue to attack speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Mutahidun, and the Sadrists. Maliki will enjoy an advantage as he will be a caretaker Prime Minister with full authority. It will be particularly important to watch if Maliki will use the security forces to his own advantage. The current major operation to re-take Fallujah from ISIS may be an example of precisely this, seeking to demonstrate his strength as a Prime Minister.
Lack of elections in Fallujah and Jurf al-Sakhar can further increase sentiments of marginalization among the Iraqi Sunni population. To mitigate the consequences of these sentiments, the vote-counting that is underway must be transparent and occur without any alteration of results. Importantly, all political groups should work towards producing a government that is representative and inclusive.
Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and Iraq Team Lead at Institute for the Study of War.