The waiting begins for Iraq's new government

08 May 2014

Iraq once again faces a protracted power vacuum as Shia parties negotiate to for a majority

As Iraqis await the results of the first parliamentary election since the exit of US troops, there is little feeling the outcome will have a positive impact on the country’s dire security situation.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is attempting to take on a third-term as premier, but faces tough negotiations with rival Shia factions over the coming months to form a governing coalition in the Council of Representatives.

Voting took place on 30 April with more than 100 parties and at least 9,000 candidates competing for influence in the 328-seat parliament. The final results are expected to be announced on 25 May, after which Al-Maliki will attempt to gain enough momentum to form a ruling majority. Turnout was said to be 60 per cent. As with the 2010 election, this is expected to be a drawn-out process, taking six to 12 months with decision-making stalling in the interim.

“Al-Maliki will have to enter alliances with other parties to gain the seats required to form the next government,” says Zaineb al-Assam, senior analyst at US-based IHS Country Risk. “As the 2010 elections showed, this is a process that matters.”

Secular rivalries

In 2010, the State of Law party won 89 seats compared with the 91 seats obtained by the Sunni-backed secularist Iraqiya bloc. Despite coming second, Al-Maliki was eventually able to form a government with the support of the National Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc of Shia Islamist parties with 70 seats.

Based on sectarian voting, about 160 of the total 328 seats are likely to go to Shia parties, allowing a pan-Shia coalition to form a ruling majority without the backing of Sunni or Kurdish parties. Al-Maliki will need to keep the majority of Shia seats to maintain a strong leadership mandate. If he fails, he will face leadership challenges from within the Shia bloc.

“The election results are only one part of a two-act play. The government formation is the more important second act; it will happen behind closed doors and take a long time,” says Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Early indicators suggest Al-Maliki underperformed. So if the other Shia blocs combined have more votes, it opens up the floor to a very competitive leadership contest within the Shia bloc.”

The election results are only one part of a two-act play. The government formation is the more important second act

Michael Knights, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Three main Shia factions ran in the 2014 election: Al-Maliki’s State of Law party; the religious establishment led by Ammar al-Hakim; and the Sadrists, a Shia nationalist movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki’s party is seen by many to occupy the middle ground between the other two factions. After the 2010 post-election standoff, he was seen as a compromise candidate among the Shia negotiators.

Iran, a major force behind the scenes, is expected to play a decisive role in the coalition-building process. After the 2010 elections, Tehran influenced its Sadr-Hakim allies in the National Iraqi Alliance to back Al-Maliki for prime minister. “Last time, it was easy for the Iranians to identify who the winner should be and put their weight behind him,” says Knights. “They have the mechanisms to influence the outcome very strongly and they can’t risk backing someone who is going to lose.”

At a time of bitter sectarian divisions in Iraq, it is unclear how much Al-Maliki or other Shia leaders would attempt to make concessions to Sunni parties. Many analysts say the prime minister’s next coalition could be even more Shia-dominated than before, but this could further inflame tensions in the country.

Sectarian violence

Violence has raged in Al-Anbar province, west of Baghdad, since the start of the year with state security forces battling Sunni insurgent forces, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The government has lost large swathes of the province – including the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah – to Sunni fighters in the most intense period of sectarian violence since 2008.

The election process itself was marred by violence. Reports claimed anti-voting attacks by Sunni insurgents killed at least 160 people in the last week of April. The death toll for political violence in Iraq that month reached 1,009, including 881 civilian deaths, and 128 policemen and government soldiers. This data, however, does not include Al-Anbar province, as Baghdad is not able to obtain reliable numbers.

The authorities estimate damage caused by violence in Al-Anbar has caused losses of $20bn. ISIL has reportedly destroyed about 25 bridges in the province as it tries to disrupt army operations, while projects in the largest cities of Ramadi and Fallujah have stalled.

“Although Al-Maliki has attempted to paint the insurgency as almost exclusively perpetrated by foreign – particularly Saudi – and Baathist Al-Qaeda militants, Sunni discontent with the government’s perceived sectarian policies is the underlying driver of insurgent violence,” says Al-Assam. “The re-election of Al-Maliki, without meaningful concessions to Sunni leaders and tribes, would likely strengthen the anti-government insurgency in Al-Anbar province and… encourage more [attacks].”

Al-Maliki is seen by many opponents as increasingly entrenching his power in Iraq’s political system, threatening its fledgling democratic process. Sunni Iraqis claim they have been marginalised from the political establishment.

In August 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a law passed by parliament that would limit prime ministers to two four-year terms in office. The court ruled the law was unconstitutional because it was drafted by parliament and not the cabinet or the presidency.

The move to limit the roles of president, prime minister and parliament speaker to two terms was spearheaded by Iraqiya, the main Kurdish coalition, and politicians loyal to the cleric Al-Sadr. But the law was overturned by the influence of Al-Maliki’s cabinet on the court.

In March, the nine-member board of directors of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) resigned citing political and judicial interference in the electoral process.

The board said it resigned to preserve the IHEC’s independence and impartiality amid a dispute over the electoral law between parliament and Iraq’s judiciary. The argument centres on Article 8 of the electoral law, approved in 2013, which calls for the exclusion of candidates considered not “of good reputation”.

Dozens were disqualified by a judicial panel because they were the subject of arrest warrants, but members of parliament said they should not be barred unless they had been convicted. Critics say Al-Maliki abused the law by preventing political rivals from standing as candidates.

Decisions on the development of major infrastructure projects in Iraq are likely to be put on the backburner in the interim period between the election and the formation of a new ruling coalition, which could last as long as 12 months.

“During the caretaker government, the people in the ministries won’t know who is coming in next. As a result, they won’t want to make any decisions until a new minister is appointed,” says Knights. This will further set back Iraq’s reconstruction and add to the frustration over the lack of public services and security.

Bleak prospects

The prospects for an improvement in either are bleak. If reappointed premier, Al-Maliki is not expected to have the resources or the will power to tackle insurgent activities in Al-Anbar and potentially other areas of the country.

“[If Maliki wins and] brings more Sunni allies into the centre, security might get better but very, very slowly. That’s not good for anyone who wants to carry out oil and gas operations in northern Iraq and [will] make big projects like the Jordan pipeline very difficult,” says Knights.

Al-Assam is even less optimistic: “The limitations of Iraq’s security forces to combat an expanding insurgency and the subsequent remobilisation of Shia militias presents a severe risk of a resumption of a Sunni-Shia civil war in mixed towns in central and northern Iraq in the event of Al-Maliki’s re-election.” Arab-Kurd violence is also likely in disputed cities such as Khanaqin near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

If Al-Maliki is reappointed prime minister with the same powerbase as in 2010, it will make little change to the violence and economic mismanagement that has characterised Iraqi governance since the first post-war cabinet took office in 2006. However, his re-appointment is far from assured and the post-election negotiations offer the opportunity for Iraq’s Shia bloc to promote a new leader to try to unite the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

The number of seats won by Al-Maliki’s State of Law party when election results are announced later this month will be the key indication of his momentum going into the coalition-building process.

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