Iraq's Political Landscape

Greg Bruno, Staff Writer
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, January 30, 2009; 1:39 PM

Iraq has held multiple national and local elections since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, but ethnic and sectarian violence has impeded political progress. Analysts say the latest round of voting -- provincial council elections scheduled nationwide for January 31 -- could mark a new chapter for Iraq's struggle with democracy. And while there have been scattered assassinations and reports of intimidation leading up to elections, most experts agree the emergence of hundreds of new parties and thousands of candidates illustrate the maturation of the Iraqi political system. Unlike polls in 2005, major Sunni parties are participating, increasing expectations that as the United States ramps up its troop drawdown plan, a stable Iraqi political scene will emerge. As Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observes: "Although the coming elections will clearly be imperfect, it is important that they be held in order to show that the central Iraqi government is committed to democratic rule and that the provincial councils are accountable, at least to some extent, to the people."

Voter Enthusiasm

More than 15 million Iraqis have registered to vote for the 2009 governorate council elections -- out of an estimated 17.2 million eligible voters (PDF). According to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, which is monitoring the election, over 14,400 candidates have been cleared to run (PDF) for 440 seats in fourteen provinces (excluding Kirkuk and three provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan). Roughly 4,000 of these candidates are women (NYT). Analysts say the candidate lists, made public in December 2008, suggest new faces will dominate major parties and coalitions, regardless of voting results. In Basra (PDF), two of the principle parties -- Fadhila and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq -- have replaced nearly all of their candidates that ran in 2005, writes Iraq political analyst Reidar Visser. The International Crisis Group, in a January 2009 report, concludes some of the candidate shifting reflects voter dissatisfaction with past performance. Analysts are paying close attention to Mosul, Baghdad, and Diyala, provinces where the makeup of provincial councils does not represent the ethnicity of the population, largely due to the Sunni boycott of 2005.

Political Parties

By some estimates, more than three hundred new democratic, liberal, nationalistic, and sectarian parties have emerged to contest the January 2009 elections. Some parties with national aspirations will compete in multiple provinces, while others with a regional focus will appear on only a few ballots. All will compete for seats on increasingly powerful provincial councils: governorates will have the authority to issue local legislation, ratify budgets, approve local security plans, and elect or remove senior officials. A breakdown of the larger Iraqi parties follows:

  • Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI): Running as the Martyr of the Mihrab and Independent Forces List coalition, this Shiite party led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has historical ties to Iran but has sought to downplay the connection ahead of elections. Associated coalitions include the Badr Organization, the Independent Gathering for the Sake of Iraq, and the Sayed al-Shuhada Movement. ISCI made strong inroads throughout Iraq in 2005 with support from middle-class Iraqis and the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But there are indications Sistani has discontinued his support, which could hurt ISCI candidates at the polls, analysts say. Currently ISCI's strength is in the south, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party has sought to increase sway. The party platform identifies capacity building and women's rights among its key issues. ISCI is running candidates in Karbala, Nineveh, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Baghdad, Salahuddin, Maysan, Wasit, Basra, Muthanna, and Babylon.
  • Islamic Call Party, aka Dawa Party : Established in the 1950s, Dawa's influence has increased dramatically under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is seen by analysts as one of the few nationalist politicians in a country of atomized political factions. With a national mandate, Maliki has moved to craft himself, and his Shia party, as nonsectarian by waging battles against Shia militants in Basra, and Sunni militias in Diyala. He also sought to increase Dawa's local standing by placing party leaders in government institutions, angering ISCI and Sadrist rivals. Many analysts see a deepening intra-Shiite power struggle developing (GlobalPost), regardless of the current round of voting. Dawa, which has put together a coalition of parties to run as the State of Law coalition, is competing in Diyala, Karbala, Nineveh, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Baghdad, Salahuddin, Maysan, Wasit, Basra, Muthanna, and Babylon.
  • The Sadrist Current: Led by the son of a revered Shiite cleric, the Sadrists have been effectively banned from running on open party lists in 2009 elections, though pro-Sadrist candidates have been scattered on ballots throughout Iraq. Some analysts believe internal disputes and pressure from Prime Minister Maliki have severely weakened the movement (PDF). Among the coalitions receiving Sadrist support is the Integrity and Reconstruction list of candidates, which is running in Karbala, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Baghdad, Maysan, Wasit, Basra, Muthanna, and Babylon.
  • Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP): An Islamist Sunni party led by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, IIP ran virtually unopposed in the 2005 provincial elections after most other Sunni parties chose not to participate. In the latest voting, IIP is closely connected to al-Tawafuq, or the Accord Front, though this coalition suffered internal splits leading up to January 2009 and has been battered by defections. Nonetheless, IIP and associated Tawafuq parties are running in a number of provinces in various incarnations. In Baghdad and Babylon, it will be Tawafuq on the ballot, while in Ninevah voters will cast ballots for IIP. In Diyala, the coalition is running as a hybrid, called the United Front for Tawafuq and Reform. In Salahuddin, it's Salahuddin Tawafuq Front, a tribal party. And in Anbar, it's the Alliance of Intellectuals and Tribes for Development.
  • Kurdish Parties: The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, form the backbone of a Kurdish alliance that has proven among the most effective political entities in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish parties favor autonomy for the Kurdistan region in the north, and have extended their influence in regions where Sunni politicians boycotted the 2005 provincial vote, including Nineveh and Diyala. With Sunni Arabs vowing to retake their seats, Kurds may lose some control in these two provinces, experts predict.
  • The Awakening Councils: Emerging as a principle counterweight to al-Qaeda-in-Iraq militants in 2006, this movement of largely Sunni tribal groups was expected to coalesce as a powerful Sunni political base in provincial elections. Yet failure to create a unified front and personality clashes among tribal leaders have diminished the councils' cachet, experts say. Awakening councils have formed lists and will compete in Baghdad, Diyala, and Anbar.
  • National Reform Trend: Established by Shiite and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, this party supports a relatively strong central government, and will vie for votes from middle-class Iraqis. Candidates are running in Diyala, Karbala, Nineveh, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Baghdad, Salahuddin, Maysan, Wasit, Basra, Muthanna, and Babylon.
  • Islamic Virtue Party, aka Fadhila: A Shiite Islamist party that favors greater autonomy and local governorate control of oil wealth, Fadhila will vie for votes in Basra, its historical base of support, as well as Diyala, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Baghdad, Salahuddin, Maysan, Wasit, Muthanna, and Babylon.
  • Iraqi National List: Led by Ayad Allawi, who served as interim prime minister in 2004, this secular coalition -- anchored by the Wifaq party -- could benefit from public distaste for the increased role of religion in politics. The movement is competing across the county, including Baghdad. Allawi's coalition is running candidates in Diyala, Karbala, Nineveh, Anbar, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Baghdad, Salahuddin, Maysan, Wasit, Basra, Muthanna, and Babylon.

Additional major players include the Iraqi National Congress Party , an umbrella of opposition groups led by Ahmed Chalabi; the Iraqi Constitutional Party, founded by Iraq Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani; and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue , a coalition of Sunni Arab, Kurds, Assyrians, and other minorities formed to contest the December 2005 elections.

Reshuffling the Political Deck

The proliferation of political parties comes amid changes to the country's voting system that, Iraqi elections officials say, will give voters a more powerful voice in choosing their leaders. In 2005, voting for the Council of Representatives (the Iraqi Parliament) used a "closed" system allowing people to only vote for political parties, rather than individual candidates. The 2009 provincial elections, by contrast, will use an open-list proportional format, similar to systems used across Western Europe. Proportional representation enables voters "to vote for one individual candidate, or for several candidates up to the number of seats to be filled," according to Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.

But Sam Parker, an expert on Iraqi politics at the United States Institute of Peace, says while the new Iraqi voting system is an improvement over past closed-list formats, large, established parties will retain an advantage because smaller parties either don't have the expertise to properly organize or have not had time to do so.

Under Iraq's revised open-list structure, votes will be tallied and awarded according to the percentage of the votes a candidate receives. "If there are forty seats at stake, you have to get one-fortieth of the votes" in a given province to win one seat, Parker explains. This threshold of votes is known as the "electoral divider" in the provincial elections law. The rub, Parker says, is that if a candidate does not reach the electoral divider threshold, "you don't get a seat, period." And because of the disorganized and fractious nature of the emerging political landscape in Iraq, Parker says there are likely to be "a whole lot of wasted votes, people [in small or unknown parties] who don't reach the threshold and don't get seats."

After the initial votes are tallied, some seats could be unfilled because larger parties might not tally 100 percent of the vote and smaller parties might not win enough votes to push them over the election threshold. These unfilled seats will be doled out on a proportional basis to the parties that won seats during the initial allocation. If, for instance, Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa Party wins 40 percent of the seats in the initial round of vote counting in Basra, Dawa will then be awarded 40 percent of the empty seats. While legal, Parker says the result "is going to look unfair" to smaller parties that might claim they didn't have enough time, or resources, to properly campaign for votes.

Navigating the Road Ahead

Iraq's progression from a war-ravaged state to a democracy where disagreements are settled at the ballot box is cause for celebration (LAT) among international observers. Many experts say they are encouraged that tribal leaders are rediscovering a political voice long tempered by violence, and voters have an opportunity for empowerment at the polls. And coming amid signals from the Obama administration that a troop drawdown is in the works, stakes for a successful Iraqi political transition couldn't be higher. Michael Wahid Hanna, a program officer at The Century Foundation who has studied Iraq's political and government structures, says provincial elections are "absolutely necessary" to rebalance the political reality in regions where councils are not representative of their constituencies. In a mixed province like Diyala, Hanna says, "this might give an opportunity for a greater diversity of parties and political figures."

But optimism remains tempered. For one, leading up to the January 31 vote a string of political assassinations (WashPost) targeted leaders, including those belonging to Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa faction. There is also concern that despite advances in transparency, Iraq's political system remains plagued by power struggles and tribal feuding that discourages grassroots candidates from challenging established parties. "There is just not a lot of customary willingness to submerge differences with somebody for the sake of some larger common goal," says Stephen Biddle, CFR's senior fellow for defense policy. "Permanent, large aggregations require a willingness to swallow compromises and disagreements even when it doesn't appear necessary for survival. The tribal social system [in Iraq] discourages all that." Parker puts it differently. There's a joke about Iraqi politics, he says. "For every two men you have three factions. And it's true. In Iraq, everyone wants to be king."

© 2009