Iraq’s Elections and the Arduous Road Ahead

Iraq has just finished a fourth round of parliamentary elections. What Iraqis await now are the results of consultations between political parties and factions in preparation for choosing a new prime minister and appointing a government, all while Iran and the United States continue to interfere in Iraq’s domestic affairs. Although held in a competitive atmosphere within the approved rules of the 2005 constitution, this round of elections has had its share of unprecedented surprises.

First, almost 7,000 candidates from all walks of Iraqi life competed, through different lists, for 329 seats, which meant that many votes cast for losing candidates were actually re-allocated to winning lists according to the proportional representation system used—and this may have skewed the final results. Because of the high number of candidates, there were many opportunities for forgery and vote buying, particularly in areas with large populations of poor people or with high concentrations of internally displaced persons, such as Anbar Province. Another source of corruption was related to members of the armed forces and security services, which number about 800,000. Previously, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed their support. This time around, only 60,000 voted for the current premier, Haider al-Abadi, and 100,000 for Maliki, while the others were up for grabs. Moreover, the Iraqi Independent Higher Electoral Commission nullified results from at least 104 polling stations where vote rigging was widespread.

Second, there was a pleasant surprise when it became apparent that traditional leaders who were responsible for past corruption practices lost their seats in this round. Important mentions include Humam Hammoudi, leader of the Higher Islamic Council, a Shia organization, Hanan al-Fetlawi, Abbas al-Bayyati, Muaffaq al-Rubai, and others. This was accompanied by a diffuse distribution of seats among many lists such that the highest scoring coalition, Moving Forward, gained 51 seats—as compared with 91 for the highest vote getter in the 2010 election, Iyad Allawi’s National List. This may have helped those political forces that have been excluded from the system because of the dominance of the larger blocs.

Third, this was perhaps the first time that the Kurdish voting bloc looked so divided. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) lost seats in its Sulaymaniyah stronghold while winning seats allocated for Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk. The PUK also initiated armed violence against the new Change List, headed by former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. Nevertheless, the Kurds may collectively have enough seats to decide who becomes Iraq’s next prime minister.

Fourth, two general coalitions are most likely to coalesce in the coming period, and they will decide the identity of the prime minister and the composition of the future government by controlling 170 seats. The first is one that united the secular Moving Forward, headed by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Victory Coalition of Haider al-Abadi, the National Coalition of Iyad Allawi, the Decision Coalition of Usama al-Nujaifi, and a smattering of smaller parties. This grand coalition rests on a belief in Iraq’s Arab identity, opposition to Iran’s role in the country, and the fight against corruption.

The second general coalition is an opposition group that would include the Conquest Coalition of the pro-Iran Hadi al-Amiri and other militias established by Iran that help it control Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s Rule of Law Alliance, and possibly the Hikma Coalition of Ammar al-Hakim. If the PUK (which has been pro-Iran since the 1970s) opts to join this coalition along with other smaller Shia parties that may be pressured by Iran, then they could potentially form the new government with Amiri as prime minister. This will obviously mean that Iraq would fall under Iranian influence for decades to come.

But this last scenario could materialize only if the United States decides to throw in the towel and end its influence in Iraq, a possibility that would then allow Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, to become kingmaker. American envoy to Iraq Brett McGurk has held wide-ranging consultations with many political forces, including those following Hadi al-Amiri as well as the Kurds, to press the point of avoiding Iranian pressure. Washington is indeed supporting the first coalition; it will not be ready to be stung again after the historic mistake of 2010, when it supported Maliki to become prime minister despite Allawi’s victory in the parliamentary elections. It is further important to remember that the United States is today in a state of total opposition to Iran, as evinced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s rhetoric regarding the Islamic Republic.

While it is very difficult to predict the exact direction of Iraq’s affairs in the near future because of the fluidity of the situation, it is hoped that the country will find the right formula that can bring it back from the brink of corruption, sectarianism, and Iranian domination.