Iraq’s election tangle
The much-awaited results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections remain uncertain amid turmoil and deep divisions among the country’s feuding communities.
The final results are not expected before the end of the month, but the country’s Kurds, Shia and Sunnis have to come to terms on a potential ruling coalition as the chill of soaring violence casts a shadow over coalition-building efforts.
Moreover, the main political blocs remain deadlocked on whether embattled Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is to be allowed to stay in office as he faces mounting criticisms over the way he has handled his two previous governments.
The preliminary results show Al-Maliki in the lead, but with no clear majority to form a government. A failure to secure a decisive victory may lead Iraq into a period of uncertainty, or outright chaos, some fear.
Prior to the 30 April elections, many of Al-Maliki’s opponents had signaled that they did not trust him and were unwilling to offer him a third term in office.
Whether Al-Maliki’s opponents will now keep fighting or whether they will seek a compromise to avoid an overall confrontation remains to be seen.
At the moment, the leaders of Iraq’s three main communities whose candidates run on ethnic and sectarian lines are trying to put their own houses in order after the election campaign bickering.
They also need to cut across the politically differentiated electorate in order to boost their power at the bargaining table.
Since the fall of the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has been ruled by a coalition government led by majority Shia Muslims and including minority Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
While the Shia will be able to maintain their hold on power in a coalition government, Iraq’s political landscape after the 2014 elections may come under increasing pressure for new trends and alignments.
The ballot boxes have showed deep divisions among the Shia, whose votes were split among anti-Al-Maliki groups and others who supported the prime minister because they believed that the Shia needed a strongmen to stand up to Sunni and Kurdish ambitions.
The leaders of the Iraqi National Alliance, the Shia electoral bloc, waged a fierce campaign to unseat Al-Maliki, warning of problems if he remained at the helm.
Many key Shia religious and political leaders have voiced dissatisfaction with Al-Maliki. At least one senior cleric also forbade Al-Maliki’s reelection.
Several Shia politicians have showed interest in the job, which gives the prime minister sweeping powers including supervising the army, police, state-owned media, oil resources and millions of government bureaucrats.
While several Shia hopefuls, including former ministers and party leaders, are keeping their cards close to their chests in anticipation of the coalition-building talks, a bloc affiliated to the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has said it is considering proposing a popular governor of a southern province for the post.
In return, Al-Maliki has rejected calls to step down, saying that his State of Law Alliance would seek to form a "political majority government" with those Sunni and Kurdish groups willing to join such a government.
All this means that the inter-Shia feuds will further complicate the path that the country will take after the polls.
The Sunni camp is also in disarray. Unlike in 2010 when they formed one bloc to maximise their political power at the polls, Iraq’s Sunnis this time round fought the elections in a divided condition.
They failed to outline a common electoral strategy to turn their anger over their alleged marginalisation by the Shia-led government into concerted efforts to gain more power. Top Sunni cleric Sheikh Abdel-Malik Al-Saadi and militant leaders urged their fellow Sunnis across the country to boycott the vote.
The Kurds have also showed deep divisions. A strategic alliance that included the two key political parties of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani has shattered.
Eight months after the Kurds went to the polls to elect a new regional parliament, this has failed to convene to choose a new government amid bitter disagreements among Kurdish political parties over a host of disputes including constitutional reforms and power and wealth sharing.
Kurdish parties have also expressed different views over who should take the post of outgoing Iraqi President Talabani.
His Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party has unofficially proposed another of its own members as a potential choice for the Iraqi presidency, but Barzani has rejected the nomination of Najmuldeen Kareem, the Kurdish governor of the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk province and warned of any unilateral move with other parties in Baghdad.
In a statement, the Kurdistan Regional Government said that the Kurdistan parliament should endorse the Kurdish candidate for the president’s portfolio.
Such tensions suggest that there is a sharp split within the Kurdish groups, which have yet to agree on several other posts in Baghdad’s central government as well as on a Kurdish agenda.
Meanwhile, violence continued to wreak havoc in Iraq after the polls, with a wave of suicide bombings and attacks hitting Baghdad and several other cities killing and wounding scores of civilians and security personnel.
Since the US-led invasion that initiated the ethno-sectarian power struggle, violence seems to have become part of Iraq’s DNA. A prolonged election tangle will most certainly worsen the instability.
On Tuesday, a series of attacks rocked Baghdad’s Shia neighbourhoods, killing and wounding dozens of civilians.
Militants on Saturday kidnapped and killed at least 20 army soldiers in an attack on a military base in the northern city of Mosul. The execution-style killings carried the hallmark of the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army battled Sunni insurgents in the city of Fallujah in an attempt to take it back more than six months after it was seized by militants. Sunni lawmakers said scores of residents had been killed in shelling in Fallujah, some by petrol bombs.
The crisis in the Al-Anbar province, triggered by last year’s government crackdown on Sunnis protesting against alleged maltreatment, has increased the polarisation and given violent Sunni extremists the leverage to instigate the anti-government rebellion.
Any failure to defeat the insurgency will likely undermine efforts to form a tangible power-sharing deal with the country’s Sunnis, leaving the door open to foreign intervention.
In previous elections the United States, whose army was still occupying Iraq, and neighbouring Iran had quietly stepped in to bring a coalition government to life.
A high-level US delegation led by US central command chief Lloyd Austin and US envoy deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq Brett McGurk rushed to Baghdad this week for talks on the elections.
Several Iraqi officials have visited Iran in recent weeks for talks amid reports that Tehran favours Al-Maliki for a third term.
Iran’s most influential intelligence official who oversees Tehran’s policy in Iraq, Qasim Suleimani, visited Baghdad last month reportedly to push Iraqi Shia leaders to lend their support to Al-Maliki.
On Friday, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, gave a positive assessment of the track record of Al-Maliki. He said Iran favoured Iraqi leaders who would fight terrorist groups, and the Iranian News Agency, which carried the statement, said Al-Maliki was likely to win a new term in office.
It is unlikely that Iraq’s other powerful Sunni neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey which are frustrated by the Shia rise to power in Iraq, will let Iran and the United States have the last word in Iraq.
US-Iranian intervention in forming a new Iraqi government will invite Iraq’s Sunni neighbours to assemble their political and other resources to help the Iraqi Sunnis if efforts to end their marginalisation fail.
Such foreign meddling will increase the current destabilisation and will sow the seeds of a civil war that could eventually tear the country apart.
However, with some give and take the leaders of the political blocs may eventually come to an agreement to form a new government. Yet the question remains whether the Iraqis themselves can ever hope that their leaders will have enough good will and political maturity to change the dysfunctional ethno-sectarian system created by the Americans for the post-Saddam era.
Simply put, Iraq’s problems are those of mutual distrust.
The Sunnis believe that the Shia are bent on subduing them, while the Shia think that the Sunnis are not willing to compromise and that their strategy is to outmaneuver them in order to return to power.
On the other hand, the Kurds refuse to lay the ghosts of the past and they tend to swing between euphoria at controlling an autonomous Kurdish region and pessimism at not being able to break away from Iraq.
No one has tried hard to alleviate the other’s fear of the past, and it is highly unlikely that Iraq’s leaders will now attempt to find closure.