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Iraq votes amidst mayhem

The elections in Iraq, the first legislative elections since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, come at a difficult time with events over the past eighteen months having pushed the country closer to breaking point. The Sunni protests that started towards the end of 2012 took an increasingly violent turn in mid-2013 raising fears of a reactivated insurgency in the western province of Anbar and elsewhere. Those fears were realised following Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s decision to close down a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi in Baghdad in December 2013.

Today the central government has nominal control over large parts of Anbar, Ninewa and Diyala. The city of Fallujah is under the control of insurgents who have also encircled Baghdad. The rejuvenation of insurgent groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, remobilization of Shi’a militias, spiraling levels of violence and the effects of the Syrian civil war have left Iraq in a precarious state.

The elections will influence the future trajectory of these crises. Prime Minister al Maliki’s ambitions for a third term and the considerable opposition that he faces from across the political spectrum are the central issues in these elections. Al Maliki’s critics fear that a third term will erode Iraq’s nascent democracy further, accelerate the centralisation of power and make reform and reconciliation even more elusive.

None of the political parties are expected to achieve an outright majority which means a protracted period of bargaining is likely after the results. In the last parliamentary elections in 2010 it took over 35 weeks to form a ‘national-unity’ government.

Be it a ‘national-unity’ or a majority government, what is being most keenly debated is whether or not it will be headed by al Maliki. The struggle is finally between the two main Shi’a political forces in Iraq. The Sadrists (represented by the Ahrar bloc) and the Ammar al Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (represented in the Muwatin bloc) have made their opposition to al Maliki very clear. However, the Sadrists, who took a similar position in the run up to the elections in 2010, ended up supporting al Maliki after they came under intense pressure. As such, the current posturing does not preclude a post-poll deal.

The security situation in the country is likely to continue deteriorating and will affect the voter turnout, especially in the restive provinces. There is no way of holding elections in Fallujah given that it is under insurgent control. 

The renewed insurgency and the security situation in general will be the most immediate crisis facing the next government. In addition there are a number of longstanding issues that need to be addressed urgently. The list is endless – Sunni grievances, the long-pending legislation for a unified Iraqi law on hydrocarbons, relations between Baghdad and Erbil, constitutional reform and managing the dangers emanating from the Syrian civil war.

One should not overestimate the transformative potential of the elections, or their ability to facilitate a drop in violence. The insurgency has developed a momentum of its own that, whilst not an existential threat to Baghdad, can nevertheless sustain current levels of violence. This is likely to build up during the lengthy period of coalition-building as politicians use security issues to score points against one another. If the Sunni politicians perform poorly and end up playing a secondary role in the next government, one can expect an intensification of violence in the foreseeable future.

However, the link between the political fortunes of Sunni leaders and the tempo of violence is a tenuous one. In any case there are insurgent elements who are irredeemably opposed to the current order and who will continue fighting regardless of the outcome of the elections. The best way to contain and eliminate such elements is through a cohesive government and security apparatus that enjoy some measure of trust and support amongst people in the restive provinces.

Fanar Haddad is Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He has published widely on identity, identity politics, and modern Iraqi social history. He is author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity.

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