Thursday, May 31, 2018

The May 12th Parliamentary Elections in Iraq: A Step Forward in the Transition to Democracy?

Muqtada al-Sadr, Sa'irun Coalition leader, and Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi
What can we learn about the future of Iraqi politics from the recent May 12th parliamentary elections?  Do the elections suggest a movement towards democracy?  What are the main takeaways?

Generally, the results were positive.  A true measure of a democratic election is that the outcome is unknown before it occurs.  Second, competing political parties must have access to the media in order to be able to present their policies to the electorate.  Finally, those who seek to run for office should be allowed to do so and voters should not be prevented from voting.  On all these counts, the May 12th elections score high points.

However, the fourth national parliamentary elections since Saddam was ousted in 2003 stand out for additional reasons.  First, Iraqi voters supported non-sectarian parties, favoring instead those which emphasized improving social services and fighting corruption.  Second, both the United States and Iran, the two external powers with the most influence in Iraq, have agreed that the current prime minister, Dr. Hayder al-Abadi, who enjoys broad popularity for defeating he Dacish and a reputation as an honest and non-sectarian leader, should remain in his post.

Third, despite its negative impact on the Western alliance, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Accord will create further economic problems for the Iranian economy which will make it more difficult for Iran to interfere in Iraqi politics.  Already, leaders of 2 of the 3 powerful militias, largely funded and controlled by Iran, have indicated a willingness to engage in at least limited cooperation with US forces in Iraq.

Finally, and perhaps most significant, it appears as if the next Iraqi government will be headed by Dr. Hayder al-Abadi, the current prime minister, and be comprised of a coalition which is cross-ethnic and cross-sect.  The core parties in the coalition - the Sadrist Trend and the Iraqi Communist Party - both of which are known for their focus on spcial justice, namey their concerns for the poor and improving social services. 

What the elections suggest, according to the best case scenario, is an Iraq which finally can focus less on putting out the fires and controversies caused by sectarianism and, through a cross ethnic and cross sect coalition, make all Iraq’s constituent ethnosectarian groups feel they have a place at the political table. In such a setting, policies which in the past benefitted a small elite of sectarian entrepreneurs, and produced negative consequences, could be replaced by public policy which actually benefits Iraqi society at large.

Because these elections would never have occurred without the toppling of Saddam Husayn in 2003, namely without foreign interference in Iraq, what external forces are at play as Iraq’s political coalitions attempt to form a new government?

Background to the elections
To better understand the recent May 12th elections, we need to understand how sectarian identities have evolved since the 1980s.  One of the misconceptions in understanding Iraqi society is that political behavior is driven by ethnosectarian identities.  While religious sect and ethnicity are central to Iraqis’ sense of themselves, it’s erroneous to assume that these social and cultural identities inherently structure political identities and behavior. 

A key distinction which Western analysts often fail to recognize is that the Iraqi populace at large is highly tolerant of cultural and social difference. The effort to manipulate ethnic and religious difference is largely a function of the policies followed by the Iraqi political class. The question then becomes: how did this rapacious political elite acquire the power to use sectarianism for personal gain with the concomitant negative consequences for Iraqi society?

The history of the political manipulation of ethnosectarian identities is beyond the scope of this post (see the special issue of The Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies which I edited for a more detailed history. ). Suffice it to say that there have always been individual sectarian politicians in Iraqi politics.  Think, for example, of the Sunni Arab sectarian, Colonel cAbd al-Salam cArif, who rose of power after the 1958 military coup d’état against the Hashimite monarchy. 

However, no political party before the 1980s defined itself in explicitly sectarian terms.  Even the al-Dacwa al-Islamiya Party (Islamic Call Party), formed by Shica clerics and political activists in the late 1950s, was formed to fight the attraction of Shica youth to the secularism of the Iraqi Communist Party, itself largely comprised of Shica members.

The sectarianization of Iraqi politics began with Saddam’s miscalculation in invading Iran in September 1980.  As Iraqi forces became boogied down in Iran, Saddam’s fear that Iraq’s Shica population would identify with their co-confessionalists in Shica a majority Iran was yet another misplaced assumption as evident by the tenacity with which Iraqi forces, 80% Shica, fought during the war.

Nevertheless, significant political and social damage was done as a result of Saddam’s efforts to vilify the “Persians” (al-furs) and, by extension, implicitly challenge the loyalty of Iraq’s Shica.  The severe UN sanctions regime of the 1990s led to the collapse of the national economy and education system and a turning inwards of Iraqis in all regions of the country.  With a steep decline in incomes, the end of foreign travel and reduced travel inside Iraq, the decline in newspaper readership, and the collapse of the book publishing industry, the interaction of Iraqis across regions was greatly reduced.[i]

Saddam’s “discovery” of religion in 1993, when he formed the so-called “Faith Campaign” (al-Hamla al-Imaniya), created a political space for sectarian entrepreneurs in which to exploit misinterpretations of Islam to promote their narrow political interests.  Meanwhile, Wahhabi elements in Saudi Arabi and the Arab Gulf used the regime’s weakness to promote sectarianism among Iraq’s Sunni Arab populace.  Sunnis who prayed 5 times a day and women who would wear a head scarf (al-hijab) received a monetary reward in return.  Rising illiteracy, especially among the poor, made it all the easier for political forces with ill intentions to implement their socially destructive objectives.

The US invasion of 2003
The toppling of Saddam Husayn in April 2003 could have been a watershed moment in Iraq.  If the ethnically and religiously integrated Iraqi conscript army had been used to prevent the development of the insurgency Saddam and his henchmen had planned in the event of their defeat, the extreme violence in Iraq, which developed shortly after George W. Bush proclaimed “mission accomplished," could have been avoided. 

If the Bush administration had promoted a government comprised of secular politicians and respected technocrats, e.g., Adnan Pachachi and oil expert, Thamir Ghadban, which was formed with the assistance of respected, non-sectarian clerics – think of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-cUlum – what a different political system would exist in Iraq today.

Instead, the Bush administration, ignoring the advice of experienced Iraq experts in the Department of State, the academy, and even the military and intelligence services, facilitated the rise of arch-sectarians and “carpetbaggers,” such as cAbd al- cAziz al-Hakim, Ahmad Chalabi, and Nuri al-Maliki, whose agendas were in no sense concerned with the needs of the Iraqi people, namely, social services, civically oriented political leadership and national reconciliation.

The incredibly violent insurgency between 2003 and 2008 could have been avoided along with the lives of 1000s of Iraqis and US service personnel.  Having selected Nuri al-Maliki to become prime minister in 2006, and then helping him manipulate election results in 2010 to remain in power, resulted in the catastrophe in which the so-called Islamic States (Dacish) seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and a third of Iraq’s territory, in 2014.

The Dacish’s institutionalization of its power in Iraq and neighboring Syria led to the brutal deaths of thousands, sex slavery and the genocide imposed on minority populations, the destruction of much of Iraq and Syria’s precious cultural heritage, and the almost complete destruction of Mosul during the campaign to retake the city in 2016, along with many towns and villages in al-Anbar and other Sunni majority provinces.  By its own estimate, the cost of rebuilding what the Dacish destroyed will cost Iraq $88 billion.  

Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies also fostered the creation of three powerful militias, all with close ties to the Iranian regime.  At various times after 2014, these militias threatened to attack American forces in Iraq, even though it was US forces which trained the elite Counter Terrorism Services which were instrumental in defeating the Dacish.

The May 12th elections
In light of this background, the very ability of Iraq to have conducted 4 rounds of national parliamentary elections since 2003, and so soon after the incredibly difficult campaign to rid Mosul and north central Iraq of the Dacish, speaks volumes to the tenacity with which Iraqis reject terrorism and still hope to enact a democratic system.

Most evident in the elections was the overall mood of the country which soundly rejected the continued infusing of politics with “religion.” Iraqis have become sick and tired of the politicization of religion.  (Indeed, in focus groups I conducted with 600 Iraqi youth, a large majority refused to attend the Friday khutba, arguing that clerics delivered political harangues and thus were not men of religion). 

All the talk about Islam by politicians, (Hayder al-Abadi excluded) hasn’t resulted in improved social services, increased employment, a better education system, greater rights for women, utilizing the creativity of youth (70% of the population under 30), or developing a more diversified and self-reliant economy (which Iraqis complain “produces nothing”).  The emerging coalition of “Sa’irun” (On the Path to Reform) - the Sadrist Trend and the Iraqi Communist Party – and al-Abadi’s “Nasr” coalition, which will probably be supported by Ayad Allawi’s al-Wataniya coalition, and Ammar al-Hakim’s al-Hikma coalition can finally begin to address these problems.

Despite the prominent position of the Sa’irun Coalition, the Iranians have made a strong effort to create a new government formed under Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the “Fath” Coalition (and the Badr Organization militia), which obtained 47 seats to Sa’irun’s 54 seats.  The Iranian strategy has been to supplement al-Amiri’s efforts to win the support of small parties by offering them ministries.  The leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Forces, Qassem Solemani, has been meeting with the 2 main Kurdish parties, offering the Kurds guarantees that they would have access to Kirkuk’s oil and natural gas resources in return for supporting “Fath.” 

Still angry at the US for not supporting the Kurdish Independence Referendum in September 2017, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in particular seems receptive to these Iranian entreaties.  The Gorran (Change) Movement and the PUK, which helped Iraq’s Federal Army retake Kirkuk and surrounding areas after the failure of the September 2017 Referendum, seems less enamored with the Iranian offer.  Nevertheless, clearly Iran seems to be exerting maximum effort to shape the new government after the May 12th elections.

Meanwhile, the United States, after foolishly trying initially to convince Prime Minister al-Abadi to forma a government with al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition, in an effort to exclude the Sadrists, now seems to have accepted the inevitable, i.e., allowing the Sadrists to express the will of the people and gaining access to power.

On the negative side, there were reports of electoral irregularities in the city of Kirkuk and in the north central provinces of al-Anbar, Salahidin, Ninawa, and Diyala, all of which have large refugee populations.  In response to over 2000 complaints, and at the urging of Council of Deputies (Parliament) Speaker, Salim al-Jaburi, who lost support in the elections, the parliament voted to nullify a large number of votes in polling stations for refugees in north central Iraq, in Kirkuk and Baghdad governorates, in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and by Iraqis casting votes outside Iraq.

That these irregularities were not just the response of parties which failed to do well in the elections, Jan Kubic, the United Nations Special Observer for Iraq, called for at least a partial manual recount of the votes.  Nevertheless, any change in the vote totals would not likely adversely affect the Sa’irun Coalition whose main source of votes was in Iraqis south-central and southern provinces.

At the end of the day, it seems that a partial, manual recount will be conducted.  If major discrepancies are discovered in contested voting districts, then a full recount will occur.  However, it is doubtful that new elections will be held and that the Sa’irun-Nasr-Hikma Coalition will be prevented from forming a government.

The “Trump effect”
The US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was a blow to the Western alliance.  There is no question that it created more strains between the US and its post-WWII European and NATO allies who lobbied hard against President Trump abrogating US participation in the accord.  Even Russia and China opposed Trump’s decision.

That said, the withdrawal from the JCPOA was accompanied by the imposition of new stringent sanctions on the Islamic Republic.  These actions included secondary sanctions which will force corporations doing business in the US to decide whether their investments in Iran are of greater importance than their investments in the US.  Already the French energy giant, Total, and the Siemens Corporation in Germany, have indicated that American interests will take precedent over Iranian investments and that they will withdraw from the Iranian market.

Iran has seen the value of its currency drop by 50% since December 2017.  Demonstrations have taken place in many parts of the country, even in rural areas traditionally known as bastions of regime support, against the rise in the prices and availability of essential goods.  In a number of instances, demonstrators have protested the reduction of government subsidies while the Iranian regime continues to provide large amounts of funds to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and to militias in Iraq and Lebanon (Hizballah).

The 3 dominant militias – the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous People and the Hizballah Brigades – gained widespread support for their struggle against the Da’ish after it seized Mosul in June 2014 and massacred large numbers of Shica and minority groups in the areas it seized.  However, efforts to translate that support into creating a separate autonomous military force through manipulating the Iraqi parliament eroded their popularity.

With a weakened economy, the Iranian regime will find it increasingly difficult to provide the same levels of financial largesse to its agents in Iraq, namely the militias, as it has done in the past.  Iran’s diminished role in funding pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, combined with the decline in the Iraqi militias’ popularity (remembering that it was Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services which liberated Mosul, not the militias), the Trump decision to leave the JCPOA may actually contribute to making the cross-ethnosectarian coalition currently being formed successful, not just in forming a government but in being able to fight corruption, improve social services and bring a measure of stability to Iraq’s political system. 

[i] Although I would note that, during a conference in al-Najaf in 2014, I met a Sunni Arab graduate student in history from Tikrit University which the conference participants were visiting the Iman Ali Shrine.  I assumed this was his first visit to al-Najaf and the Shrine.  However, he indicated that his parents had brought him to the Shrine during the 1990s when he was young, despite the fact that they were Sunnis and despite the financial hardship that travel from Tikrit to al-Najaf at that time entailed.