− Significant wins anticipated for Dawa and Secular parties
− Election victories seen as a renewed mandate for the al-Maliki government
− Tension in Nineveh, Basra, and Diyala to remain high but widespread violence is unlikely in the near term
Voter turnout in Iraq’s January 31, 2009 provincial elections was approximately 51 percent of Iraq’s 15 million registered voters. Though a final tally of votes will not be complete for two to three weeks, early returns indicate a significant shift in power in some of Iraq’s most volatile provinces. Early reporting shows substantial gains for members of Prime Minister (PM) Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and its secular allies in Baghdad and Basra. Initial counts also suggest the dominate Sunni party in Nineveh, the National al-Hadba’a Gathering, could gain more than 40 percent of the seats on the provincial council. Finally, in Diyala, reports from tribal leaders like Abu Talib indicate that a win by religious parties, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SIIC), would result in conflict.
Given the tension associated with religious parties loosing power, some fear party militias will retaliate against government targets in order to maintain policing rights in key provinces. We, however, do not anticipate widespread violence in Iraq’s volatile provinces in response to an al-Maliki win. The prime minister has demonstrated his political prowess over the past two years, maintaining authority in the parliament through periods of great opposition. Therefore, the demonstration of support implicit in a Dawa win will serve as a stabilizing factor in Iraq, not a driver toward instability.
Al-Maliki: Hero to the Populous, Potential Dictator to the Leadership
A seeming majority of Iraqis embrace PM al-Maliki as their liberator. He is accredited with ridding neighborhoods of militia rule in Baghdad and in Basra. However, some of his political practices put him at odds with his peers. Kurdish leaders view recent measures by the al-Maliki government, such as declaring Kurdish oil contracts illegal, calls for strengthening the central government and the decision by government-backed, Shia newspapers to refer to Kurdistan as “northern Iraq” or “Kurdish areas,” as evidence that PM al-Maliki is overreaching his authority and attempting to rewrite the Iraqi constitution. Non-Kurdish opposition to the prime minister fear al-Maliki’s strength among the populous and plans to centralize government authority in Baghdad and establish provincial support councils will lead to the creation of a new dictatorship (Previous Report).
These are not the reasons, however, that the Dawa party’s win could trigger instability. An electoral win by the Dawa is equivalent to a loss by SIIC, who has maintained power and militias in Baghdad and Basra since the fall of the Saddam regime. SIIC’s militia wing, the Badr Brigades, and the Sadr Movement’s militia wing, the Mahdi Army, have battled for control of Basra in particular. In April 2008, the PM al-Maliki deployed the Iraqi Army to disarm the Mahdi Army in its southern Iraq strongholds (Previous Report). The battle ended with Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s institution of a unilateral ceasefire. With the waning of Sadr’s authority in Basra and Shia strongholds, the Badr Brigade fighters filled the vacuum created by the Mahdi Army’s exit. With its dominance on southern provincial councils and strong militia presence, SIIC has exerted significant authority in the south.
As a result, many fear SIIC is unlikely to hand over its vast authority in the region willingly to secular and rival parties. However, a strong, popular, al-Maliki mandate in the region and the threat of military engagement will likely be enough to convince SIIC to fade into the background with limited resistance. The party will instead seek to enhance its popular support ahead of the coming general elections in late 2009.
Nineveh: Demonstration of Sunni Strength
In Nineveh, where Kurdish and Sunni politicians vie for power, voter participation was highest, with 60 percent of registered voters taking part. Nineveh borders Kurdistan and is expected to be an important player in the Kurdish referendum concerning the disputed territories. As a result of Kurdish dominance in Nineveh, Mosul, its largest city, has become a flashpoint in the standoff between Kurdish and Iraqi militaries and the Sunni-led insurgency.
Kurdish leaders gained a majority on the Nineveh provincial council due to a Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections. This year, Kurdish dominance is expected to be reversed in favor of a more accurate representation of ethnic and political leanings in the province. The strongest Sunni party, al-Hadba’a, which ran a counter-Kurdish campaign, is projected to gain the ability to offset Kurdish power on the council. Representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) say they are willing to work alongside Sunni provincial leaders for the betterment of the region. Sunni leaders, on the other hand, fear Kurdish leaders will attempt to usurp Sunni authority on the council. They point to the Kurdish-run provincial council’s 2008 decision to close al-Hadba’a’s radio station for allegedly “sowing sedition and fueling tension” between Arab and Kurdish residents as a sign of the Kurds unwillingness to accept a strong Sunni political presence. As a result, though no large-scale conflict is anticipated in the election fallout, tension between KRG and Sunni leaders is expected to intensify ahead of the general election. Should the Sunnis gained a solid foothold in both elections, the KRG’s ability to secure a win in a Kurdish referendum will be threatened.
Diyala: Rewarding Tribal Leaders
Though Abu Talib and others warned of political violence if religious parties win heavily in Diyala and Anbar provinces, conflict is unlikely. His statement demonstrated the tribal councils’ assuredness that a loss would only come at the hand of election tampering. However, there are no signs that election tampering took place and early counts indicate that secular parties will gain a significant number of seats on provincial councils. Once again, though Sunni participation will lead to enhanced authority in the provinces, the rise in representation is deemed legitimate by the populous and will most likely be upheld by the government.
Outlook: Political Solutions
The relative calm surrounding this year’s provincial elections indicates a preference for political solutions. Iraqis are demonstrating their preference for nationalist, secular leaders who are committed to economic recovery not religious or ethnic agendas. After six years of violence and economic turmoil, the al-Maliki government is persistent in its efforts to achieve national reconciliation and to rebuild Iraq. Though he faces opposition from many sides, his seemingly widespread popular support, and the lack of a suitable replacement, will ensure he maintains power in the medium term. Targeted assassinations of political leaders in Kurdistan and Basra are likely to continue ahead of the 2009 general election, but widespread violence and instability is not anticipated in the near to medium term.