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#4425, 5 May 2014

Spotlight West Asia

Elections in Iraq: Uncertain Prospects
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman

The US’ unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subsequent overthrow and execution of then President Saddam Hussein, and the complete dismantling of the Ba'athist state apparatus left an already emaciated Iraq – to over a decade of Western sanctions –  in complete shambles. The US military occupation and rule could not prevent Iraq from degenerating into a completely fractured country with deep ethnic, regional and sectarian fault lines. The death toll in sectarian conflict and terrorist attacks is consistently rising, and has reached its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian strifes in 2006 and 2007; UN estimates suggest that 8,868 people were killed in 2013. According to the Ministry of Interior of Iraq, 1,666 people have died in the first quarter of 2014, and in April alone 1,009 people were killed. The figures might be higher given that data from the terrorism infested, Sunni controlled Anbar region haven’t been included.

It was in this backdrop that the 29 April parliamentary elections – the first after the withdrawal of the US troops three years ago – were held. Given the grim, chaos infested aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, it is a major accomplishment that the elections were held at all. Despite the aforementioned contexts, in many parts of the country and especially in Baghdad, violence was surprisingly low on the Election Day. According to Iraq’s Independent Election Commission, there was a 60 per cent voter turnout and this should be considered a matter of considerable satisfaction, if not celebration.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in power since 2006, is running for a third term. This year there was no Iranian push for a single Shiite coalition. Instead, there are at least three major Shiite lists, associated with Maliki, Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrists respectively, apart from other smaller entities. There are many Sunni entities in the fray but they appear unable and unlikely to put up a united front. In fact, compared to the 2010 elections where there were 86 competing groups, there are 107 political groups in 2014. Also, contrary to 7,000 candidates in the 2010 elections, the 2014 elections have over 9,000 candidates. The increase in the number of candidates and lists can be attributed to defections and disintegrations among the bigger alliances. In 2010, Kurdish support finally tilted the scales in Maliki’s favour but given the Maliki’s steadily deteriorating personal relationship with the central government and the Kurdish Regional Government, this seems unlikely this time unless Maliki can pull off a magical eleventh hour coup. However, given Maliki’s hold on various constitutional entities, he could manipulate events and entice support to stay in power. 

Given the multiplicity of parties and factions in the country, it takes months to cobble together a government, and therefore, the world will have to wait for the final outcome; but it is difficult to envisage the wily Maliki being outwitted. Iraq needs a strong leader for the immediate short term and for all of Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism and undoubted shortcomings as his many critics rightly contend, it’s likely that no other contender would have done any better in the utterly chaotic situation the country was in. Regardless of what happens, there must be no foreign interference – the root cause of why the situation is so bad in the first place.

The US and Iran are the two most influential powers in contemporary Iraq. Though Maliki has not been the first choice of either party in the past, and he has shown that he is by no means a pawn of either; ironically both consider him an ‘ally’. It is important that whoever emerges as the Prime Minister has the tacit approval of both the US and Iran; absent that, the situation within the country could become much worse. Having said this, it is not unlikely that this time around too, their backstage influence would likely be used ultimately in Maliki’s favour. 

Maliki successfully managed to hold an Arab League Summit in Baghdad in March 2012 – for the first time since 1990, and only the second time in the country's history. Significantly, the Emir of Kuwait personally attended the Summit, and was the only GCC leader to do so. Since then the relationship between the traditionally antagonistic countries has improved dramatically.  

Earlier this year, Iran and Iraq announced that they have agreed to implement the historic 1975 Algiers Agreement to regulate their land and river borders and, most importantly, to dredge the Shatt-al-Arab river. Bilateral trade stood at $12 billion in 2013, making Iraq one of Iran’s s, and Iraq is the most significant export market for Iran’s non-oil trade. Furthermore, Iraq had stepped forward proactively to fill the breach when India’s imports from Iran significantly declined due to sanctions. This is pragmatism not subordination.

Saudi Arabia is and will remain antagonistic towards any Shia dispensation in Iraq. Turkey’s relations with Iraq have deteriorated a great deal, partly due to its direct oil and other dealings with the Kurdish Regional Government and partly due to Iraq being perceived as a willing and cooperative conduit for men and arms to aid President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Otherwise, Iraq has good relations with all other countries including India. 

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