The Iraqi local elections were held on 31 January 2009, with 440 seats being contested in fourteen of the country’s eighteen provinces. The results, most of which were released on 5 February, offer important evidence into current political trends.
The outcome has two especially striking aspects. First, the trouncing of the principal ruling parties - the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), both in Baghdad and in southern governorates, and the Kurdish alliance in Ninewa (Mosul). Second, the utter fragmentation of the political landscape.
ISCI has been damaged by four years of mismanagement, corruption and intimidation in the areas it has controlled; the public is fed up with violence, crime, corruption and the absence of basic services. The party, once paramount throughout the south, has seen its support shrink to a humbling (even humiliating) 10%. In Ninewa, the Kurdish parties, which benefited from a Sunni Arab boycott in December 2005, saw their oversized role dwindle to a representation more accurately reflective of local demographic and political realities (from 75% to 25%), while they managed to hold on to a steady 17% share in Diyala.
What may save ISCI and the Kurds is the scattering of the rest of the vote across an array of opponents. The prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s "State of Law" coalition is in southern Iraq is foremost among them. Al-Maliki used all the institutional levers at his disposal to bring home the vote; moreover, he saw his nationalist rhetoric over the past year resonate with a wide spectrum of the electorate.
Yet these advantages did not translate into an overwhelming triumph. Al-Maliki averaged 20% of the vote in the nine southern governorates plus Baghdad, twice ISCI’s take and a vast improvement over his feeble performance four years ago, but hardly sufficient to govern; he even lost (to Yousef Majid al-Habboubi) in Karbala, the only governorate his Da’wa party carried in 2005. The remainder of the vote went to an amalgam of small parties and individual lists, including followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, who should never be counted out, as well as a party headed by Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, Maliki’s predecessor as party leader and prime minister.
The situation is hardly different where in those governorates whose population is predominantly Sunni Arab: palettes of nationalist, Islamist and tribally-based groups in Anbar and Salah al-Din (Tikrit), and the same in Diyala and Ninewa, where Kurds add to the range of colour. In none is there a clear winner.
Much will depend therefore on the shape of post-electoral governing alliances. Two predictions: all will seek to unite against ISCI, and those who can spend the most and promise the best positions will bring in most of the seats won by small and individual lists.
This suggests that ISCI may yet prevail in several southern governorates (Najaf, Muthanna, Maysan and Waset in particular) by buying up seats; but the more likely scenario is diverse, somewhat unhappy anti-ISCI alliances of al-Maliki, Ja’fari, the Sadrists, Fadhila and others, with al-Maliki’s State of Law list claiming the right to appoint the most senior officials from among the governor, council head, police chief and their principal aides. In Ninewa, the question will be whether Arab solidarity will marginalise the Kurds or whether the latter will outmanoeuvre Arab nationalists by forging links with the Iraqi Islamic Party, an Arab Islamist group with which it has been an uneasy partner.
A year of tension
What does it all mean? Much early post-election commentary widely interpreted the vote as a defeat of religious parties and of Iran; and as a victory for secularism, moderation - and the United States (which pushed for these elections and needed a peaceful poll as evidence of Iraq’s upward trajectory as it prepares to pull out).
The reality is a good deal more complex. If these elections are a positive step in Iraq’s tortured quest to reinvent itself, it may be because both the United States and Iran gained. Tehran wants a friendly regime in Baghdad running a state that is sufficiently strong to hold the country together, but not so powerful that it could again invade its neighbour. It may have established, funded, equipped and trained ISCI - but it has supported a number of Iraqi groups since 2003, sometimes playing one against another, before mediating a new accommodation between them.
On balance, victory has gone to parties that oppose the notion of regionalisation advocated by ISCI and the Kurds, led by a Shi’a prime minister who has openly called for a stronger central state. This reinforces rather than undermines the Iranian agenda.
Overall, the elections constitute a setback for ethno-sectarian identity politics. Nouri al-Maliki emerges strengthened as he aspires to extend his tenure. After his success in playing the nationalist card, more of the same can be expected. This will further raise tensions with the Kurds, who take a dim view of a resurgent central state that is beginning to make military inroads in the territories they claim, especially Kirkuk.
Moreover, ISCI will seek by any means at its disposal to prevent an even more crushing defeat in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2009. The temperature of intra-Shi’a politics is bound to rise in coming months.
Joost R Hiltermann is deputy middle-east programme director of the International Crisis Group, based in Istanbul. He is the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge University Press, 2007)