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Iraq's Elections: Powder Keg or Post-Identity Politics

By Matt Cohen

On May 12, Iraq will hold parliamentary elections and continue its slow march towards normalcy after the devastating fight against ISIS. The election will occur in a fractured political landscape that has the potential to make or break Iraq’s political stability moving forward.

The election will select the Council of Representatives, who will then elect the president and prime minister. Current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has created his own political coalition, triumphantly named the “Victory Alliance.” Though a member of the Islamist Da’Wa party, Abadi is running independently after failing to receive the endorsement of party leader and former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who will contend for power himself. Significantly, Da’wa party members are seemingly free to support either leader.

The victory over ISIS plays heavily in the narrative between these two leaders. While Abadi is credited with the victory over the terrorist group, Maliki is generally criticized for the 2014 rout of the Iraqi army in the face of the Islamic State’s advance. Abadi is also known for his stance against corruption whereas corruption accusations marred Maliki’s administration. Maliki’s government reportedly siphoned off up to $500 billion over his eight year term. Conversely, The New York Times reported that some members of the Iraqi public liken Abadi to an “Iraqi Abe Lincoln.”

Given the political narrative around these two men, Abadi has an obvious path to the premiership, yet it is the unnoticed developments that present the most interesting possibilities. While Iraq’s Shia political parties are notoriously fractured, until now, they’ve maintained their ability to coalesce into governing coalitions post-election, ensuring their dominance over the parliament. However, that may change. Abadi and Maliki, the two frontrunners, cannot garner enough votes for a majority. Like previous elections, they will need to string together a complicated web of parties. Except this time the coalitions will need to span the entirety of the enigmatic political spectrum in Iraq as opposed to bringing together mostly Shia parties.

Some see unrest as a serious possibility during this election season. Dividing the Shia electorate runs a considerable risk, especially since the political mobilization of the Iranian backed, and sometimes Iranian-controlled, Shia militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). While Abadi initially welcomed some of the PMF into his coalition, these alliances quickly fell apart. The PMF was officially absorbed into the Iraqi military in early March, legitimizing them and enraging Sunnis who have been the victims of PMF atrocities.

Riskier still is the cozy relationship between the PMF and Iran. Some PMF commanders meet regularly with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The desire of Tehran to influence Iraqi politics is clear. Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis criticized Iran for funneling, “not an insignificant amount of money,” into Iraq in an attempt to sway the election. Iran has significant ties to Maliki and to certain powerful Kurdish parties like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which it muscles when it can. Instability in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) during Iraq’s election must be considered after the tumult caused by the failed Kurdish Independence Referendum. The PUK and the other major party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) found themselves on opposite ends of that debate. All this being said, Tehran will no doubt play a significant role in the outcome of this election.

To what extent will Iran continue their meddling? Who will the PMF support? Who will members of the Shia establishment support? Who will the Kurds support? These are key questions in the lead up to the election and sources of potential flashpoints.

However, there is a more optimistic assessment. What Abadi and Maliki’s separate campaigns represent is a positive step towards a post-sectarian Iraq, one in which Shia parties will depend on secular, Kurdish, and Sunni groups to cobble together a governing majority. Abadi even has Sunnis running for seats on his own list in Sunni-dominated areas like Anbar province. This political diversity signals a potential weakness in Iran’s operating leverage in Iraqi politics, a concept outlined by Douglas Ollivant, former Director of Iraq at the National Security Council. In his March 13 article in War on the Rocks, Ollivant conveys – in much greater detail – the idea that Iran’s inability to consolidate the Shia parties into a unified position denotes their weakened position in Iraq.

Crucially, the political fracturing isn’t reserved to Shia parties. In 2010, there were essentially two Shia groups vying for power accompanied by one Sunni group, and one Kurdish. Now, according to Ollivant, the elections will pit against each other, “five major Shi’a lists, two major Sunni lists, two major Kurdish lists, and several interesting independent and/or new parties and lists — for a total of 88 lists overall.” It is important to note that a number of non-sectarian reform parties are contending as well. A list is much like a partisan slate of candidates in the U.S., except political parties can have candidates in more than one list. For instance, Maliki and Abadi, though from the same party, are running on two separate lists.

It is clear that this election will have a major role in determining Iraq’s, and indeed the Middle East’s, political future. One can imagine a situation in which an exercise in the democratic process in Iraq displays the democratization of military force in the Middle East – one in which PMF militias spread violence and unrest in political reprisals after liberating the country from ISIS only a few months ago. One can also envision a situation in which the right candidate wins a solid collection of seats and cobbles together a cross-sectarian, post-conflict coalition focused on fighting corruption and eliminating the remnants of extremism. The first leaves the door open for further Iranian stewardship of Iraq and the second signals the arrival of what the United States has hoped Iraq would become post-invasion. The lead up to the elections will have no shortage of drama and political intrigue, it would behoove all interested readers to keep their eyes open for new developments.

Matt Cohen is a contributor at Emerging Voices and Master’s candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs concentrating in Transnational Security with a focus on the Middle East.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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