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The Postponement of Provincial Elections in Anbar and Nineveh: Initial Reactions

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 20 March 2013 3:21

Iraq being Iraq, it refused to stand still for the start of the 10-year war anniversary. As Americans began marking the day when President Bush declared war, Iraqi newswires were awash with reports that local elections scheduled for 20 April had been postponed for a maximum 6 months throughout the country for security reasons. Subsequent reports qualified the initial once and said only the Sunni-majority governorates of Anbar and Nineveh would be affected, although there has so far been remarkably little in the way of official, written confirmation. Nonetheless, the epic timing of this decision immediately raises questions that are highly relevant to the outpouring of punditry assessing the war: Was the derailment of elections simply the most symbolic indicator possible that Iraq’s transition to democracy has failed?

Not so fast. Some theories immediately thought the cancellation of the elections in Sunni provinces bordering Syria was a response by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki based on fear that radical Sunnis would come to powers in large numbers – thanks mainly to the general radicalization of the political atmosphere in those areas, which are seen as largely loyal to the Syrian opposition. But there is evidence going back several weeks that local politicians in Anbar had in fact contacted the Iraqi elections commission IHEC exactly with such a postponement in mind. Subsequent to the news that the Iraqi cabinet had decided on a delay, those local politicians went on to express satisfaction about the decision to postpone.

To some extent, of course, this could be simply the result of some politicians fearing they would lose their jobs due to popular dissatisfaction. Turning to Nineveh, though, there is a different picture altogether. The outcry against the postponement has been loud there, and here Usama al-Nujayfi, the parliament speaker and brother of the Nineveh governor, condemned the delay.

Evidently, the Nineveh politicians are far less afraid of losing their jobs than their Anbar counterparts. This may be performance-related, but it could also have to do with different views on the Syrian uprising and the radicalism it has brought to Sunni-dominated parts of western Iraq. Anbar has after all seen some of this before: The sahwa movement was a response to unwanted radicalism on the part of Al-Qaeda. Last year, Maliki succeeded in winning over a sufficient number of local shaykhs to dilute a movement in favour of federalism for Anbar. What we are seeing today in terms of rapprochement over elections postponement could be much-needed tendencies of cooperation between Maliki and Sunni local leaders at a time when regional winds are clearly blowing in a sectarian direction. With many Iraq commentators focused on black and white characterizations of Iraqi politics (or “crescents”) we tend to forget that many Iraqi Sunnis still find themselves sandwiched between extremist Al-Qaeda sympathisers and an Iraqi government they suspect of having too close links to Iran.

Nineveh appears to be a different story, thus cementing the sense of a complete rupture between Maliki and the Nujayfi brothers. Some Maliki critics in Nineveh go all the way and call for federalism as an appropriate response. Still, the stark discrepancy between the Nineveh and Anbar responses should in itself give pause for those in a hurry to declare any kind of Sunni region. If Maliki is smart, he will take this last-minute opportunity to win some much-needed Sunni friends in Anbar. Already the Sadrists that saved his premiership last year (and the budget earlier this month) have declared a cabinet boycott, saying they take orders from Muqtada al-Sadr only. That sort of capriciousness should be a reminder to Maliki about what sort of forces he will be hostage to if he perseveres with a strictly sectarian approach in order to guarantee his political survival.

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De-Baathification in the Iraqi Provincial Elections by Governorate and Political Entity

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 10 March 2013 21:54

Exactly as in the 2010 parliamentary elections, the release of official candidate lists for the 20 April local elections is a two-tiered process. An initial batch of approved candidates – the majority of 8,099 vetted candidates – has been released first. Candidates that have been struck from the lists due to problems with their candidature have their names suppressed in the first list, but they can appeal. If they succeed, they will appear in an addendum to the official candidate lists, to be published by IHEC separately.

Also like in 2010, it is possible to use the statistics of omitted candidates from the released lists of candidates as an indication of de-Baathification issues and how they affect different political entities and geographical regions of Iraq. True, omitted candidates also include a minority of people whose exclusion may relate to other factors, such as criminal charges or forged documents. There are also a host of other methodological issues to keep in mind. Nonetheless, since the majority of the omissions appear to relate to de-Baathification, these statistics do offer a sufficiently distinctive picture to say something about how people’s relationship with the old Baathist regime are still having an impact across Iraq .


The picture that emerges from a tabulation of this data is quite clear, and very similar to 2010. In terms of party allegiances, the Shiite Islamists and Kurds generally have few problems with de-Baathifications. It is noteworthy that whereas Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki did have some de-Baathification issues in 2010, this time his lists have been mostly untouched by the de-Baathification committee. On the other hand, the secular and Sunni-dominated parties are represented disproportionately among the entities targeted for de-Baathification. Iraqiyya stands out, accounting for the lion’s share of all likely de-Baathification cases. A similar fate has befallen some (but not all) of the Iraqiyya splinter groups, a case in point being Free Iraqiyya. (Conversely, White, the mainly Shiite breakaway group from Iraqiyya has apparently not experienced any nomination trouble at all.) The unwavering cross-sectarian partisans of Nadim al-Jabiri and Mahmud al-Mashaddani have only managed to put up a list in Baghdad; it too seems to have a few cases of de-Baathification. Three interesting but far less known entities are 429, 492 and 517. All of them stand out for making an attempt at running in several provinces, and all of them figure disproportionately among the likely de-Baathification cases. They include Wasfi Asi Hussein, the leader of list 517 who ran with Maliki in 2010; he is now contesting Baghdad and Anbar. Other local (i.e. one-governorate) lists with notable nomination trouble include 401 and 435.

Geographically, it is also a well known story we are dealing with. South of Baghdad, there is now hardly any de-Baathification at all after an extra-judicial witch hunt of anyone with ties to the Baath blossomed during the months prior to the March 2010 parliamentary elections.  The majority of de-Baathification cases are from the Sunni-majority areas as well as the capital Baghdad, with Nineveh taking the biggest share of the total. It is noteworthy though that the generally close ties between the northern regions and the regime affect even candidates on the Shiite and Kurdish lists. The few cases of Shiite de-Baathification issues that can be found arise in the north, and even Kurds in Nineveh appear to have problems getting some of their candidates approved.

One final indicator worthy of consideration relates to the list rank of the de-Baathified and disapproved candidates. With respect to some entities – again often the Shiite parties – the few cases of excluded candidates that appear are far down the list and may relate to sloppy documentation and oversight by the party leadership who may not care that much what happens to bottom-of-the-list candidates. However, certain lists have seen their top candidates slashed in what amounts to highly symbolic moves against their leaderships. One example is the list of Iraqiyya politician Saleh al-Mutlak in Baghdad, which has yet to get its top candidate approved. (Maybe Mutlak’s reported support for Maliki recently in settling the budget against the wishes of the Kurds will help him once again.) Other such entities include list 429, which seems to be the personal creation of one Rushdi Saidi who is presumably the top candidate in Baghdad for whom approval remains lacking. Same story with 468 in Karbala and 505 in Diyala. These are lists and figures worth keeping an eye on simply for the fact that the de-Baathification committee finds it worthwhile to target them at the top.

Of course, this year’s de-Baathification purge comes against the backdrop of the big controversy relating to Midhat al-Mahmud, the supreme court chief. Mahmud was recently himself subjected to de-Baathification, although the de-Baathification appeals board subsequently approved his appeal and reinstated him, saying they found no trace of any connection to the Baath. That is somewhat hard to believe given Mahmud’s elaborate CV of achievements in the judicial system of Iraq since the 1990s, but then again it would be an exaggeration to say that the de-Baathification law has been applied to the letter since it was passed in 2008. The political context of the reinstatement of Mahmud suggests the Sadrists caved in to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in this case by letting the prime minister replace the Sadrist head of the de-Baathification board – and perhaps with the message that de-Baathification needs not be applied quite so strictly when it comes to Shiites. Recent Sadrist alignment with Maliki to get the budget passed despite the demands of the Kurds and the boycott of Iraqiyya is an indication of the same trend. Judge Midhat has quickly moved to reassert himself by sacking the court spokesperson and striking down a piece of legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament without consulting the government; the recent attempt to limit the term limits of the prime minister will likely suffer the same fate.

Regarding this latest act of mass de-Baathification, the statistics speak for themselves as regards who is being hit. It should be added, though, that if the law had been applied evenly and if the appointment of the de-Baathification board had been less politicised there would probably have been greater numbers of disqualifications on both sides, among Sunnis and Shiites alike. Many ex-Baathists of either sect are probably able to run simply thanks to wasta (informal patronage) rather than fulfilment of the judicial requirements – consider for example how unscathed the list of parliament speaker Nujayfi is.

A “state of law” it certainly isn’t.

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IHEC Publishes the Candidate List for Iraq’s Local Elections

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 6 March 2013 11:52

They have been long in the making but now they are finally published: The lists of 8,100 candidates for Iraq’s 20 April local elections. This is quite a substantial source of 200 plus pages of candidate names, but at least some initial conclusions can be drawn regarding how the battle is shaping up in the various provinces.

One way of looking at the candidates and the competing coalitions is to study which political movements compete in all of the country, and which are limited to particular areas and regions. From that angle, it is clear that only one list fields substantial numbers of candidates  throughout the country from Anbar and Nineveh in the north to Basra in the south: The secular Iraqiyya headed by Ayad Allawi. Even before the ballots have been cast, this must be considered something of a triumph for Iraqiyya (list 486), which has shown considerable signs of cracks and internal splits during the political turmoil following the US exit from Iraq in December 2011. Despite rumours of major defections as well as the emergence of actual splinter groups, Iraqiyya continues to muster candidates in Sunni and Shiite areas alike.

Iraqiyya is the only major coalition to do so. Unlike the situation in 2009, the Shiite Islamist parties have decided to form one umbrella Shiite ticket in all areas where the Shiites are minorities (list 472 in Salahaddin, list 463 in Nineveh and list 501 in Diyala) and are not competing at all where there is no significant Shiite electorate (Anbar). A clearer message of sectarian disinterest could hardly have been formulated: These coalitions are no longer even trying to compete for the vote of people of a different sect, quite similar to the well-established ethnic strategy of the Kurds (list 469 across the northern governorates). As for the situation in the Shiite-majority areas south of Baghdad, it is shaping up as a three-way struggle for the Islamist vote between Muwatin or ISCI (411), the expanded State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that is now also featuring  the Badr organisation and Fadila (419), and the Sadrist or Ahrar list (473).

The rest of the field consists of two things: Firstly, coalitions who have tried to follow the Iraqiyya model of contesting both Shiite and Sunni areas, but without the ability to cover all of the country; secondly, local curiosities. To the first group belong parts of the Iraqiyya parliamentary bloc that have decided to run separately in the local elections, including most prominently the Mutahhidun (444) of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi and his brother Athil, the governor of Mosul. In addition to Nineveh, this list is running in Basra, Baghdad, Salahaddin and Anbar. The inclusion of Basra makes it look like more than a narrowly oriented regional coalition, although the number of candidates it is fielding there (8) is unimpressive. Similar attempts to be national without really succeeding can be seen in Saleh al-Mutlak’s list (list 425 in Baghdad, Anbar, Salahaddin and list 466 in Muthanna) and among Iraqiyya breakaway elements like the pro-Maliki White (456, running only in Basra, Babel, Qadisiyya and Karbala) as well as Free Iraqiyya (list 467 running in Baghdad and Diyala and list 499 in Karbala).

There are several local phenomena that will make for special dynamics in particular governorates. In Anbar, Allawi, Nujayfi and Mutlak are challenged by several lists with a more local orientation, as is the case in Salahaddin (including the list of the governor, 430). In many of the Shiite-majority areas, there are small independent challengers to Maliki, including an independent list in Basra run by a prominent businessman (432). Powerful local lists that helped Maliki win control in Karbala and Najaf in 2009 are still running separately there (434 and 441 respectively, though the Karbala governor himself is now on the Maliki list). One of the small Shiite Islamist parties, the Tanzim al-Dakhil branch of the Daawa, has elected to run separately in most governorates (list 460), and the shadowy, possibly pro-Maliki Knights of the Law Supporters (484) appear with small lists in Salahaddin, Wasit, Baghdad, Dhi Qar and Diyala.

A couple of hundred candidates have been provisionally struck from the lists by the de-Baathification committee. This is a lower percentage than in the parliamentary elections of 2010, though a cursory reading of omitted candidates suggests it is once more the Sunni-majority governorates and the secular parties that are taking the heaviest toll. They still have the possibility to appeal the decisions individually, and a final roll of last-minute approved candidates will be published by IHEC.

All in all, the candidate lists suggest a political atmosphere that is looking more sectarian than in 2009, with the Shiite parties largely giving up the fight for Sunni votes. To what extent Iraqiyya will actually succeed in its nationally oriented strategy, remains to be seen as well. Nonetheless, given Iraq’s increasingly homogeneous sectarian population patterns, the majority of these contests will be of an intra-sectarian nature. To some extent, the electorate will give their verdict on four years of rule by Maliki allies; these figures are now at the top of the State of Law list in their respective areas, including in places like Basra and Baghdad. The concomitant sectarian infighting can perhaps in itself have some positive impact on an Iraqi political situation that seems stalemated internally and under severe pressures from regional dynamics, above all in Syria.

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As the Deadline for Forming Coalitions Expires, Maliki Creates a Shiite Alliance for Iraq’s Local Elections in April 2013

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 21 December 2012 8:27

In an ominous backdrop to the recent political turbulence in Iraq and mass arrests yesterday of scores of employees of Finance Minister Rafi al-Eisawi of Iraqiyya, the Iraqi electoral commission IHEC has rather silently confirmed that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is beginning to shape a big sectarian alliance for the purpose of contesting the local elections in April 2013.

IHEC continuously updates its list of newly formed coalitions, but the latest addition yesterday of an entity referred to as C26 is surely the most momentous so far (and probably the last one, since 20 December was the extended deadline for registering coalitions). The name of the coalition is State of Law, and its head is “Nuri Kamil Muhammad Hasan”, aka Prime Minister Maliki. The really important thing, though, is the scope of the alliance. Not only are the usual suspects from the various Daawa parties, the “independents” of Vice Premier Hussein Shahristani and the Daawa breakaway faction of Ibrahim al-Jaafari included. Here are also Badr, Fadila, and several smaller Shiite Islamist and (Shiite) Fayli Kurd parties. The only slightly unexpected inclusions are Jamal al-Batikh of the White breakaway movement from the secular Iraqiyya and Iskandar Witwit, also formerly of Iraqiyya. Then again, these are (secular) Shiites, meaning that the overarching theme here is the failure of Maliki to coopt the many Sunni breakaway factions from Iraqiyya who share some of his ideas in the ongoing dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish federal region. Instead Maliki is relying on a ragtag of smaller parties who stand out mostly for their Shiite sectarian outlook, including some truly unsavory elements like the Tanzim al-Dakhil branch of the Daawa party headed by Abd al-Karim al-Anayzi.


The only major Shiite parties that are not included in Maliki’s new list are ISCI and the Sadrists, the latter having announced a coalition of their own. [Update: “latter” in previous sentence refers to the Sadrists only, not to both. In latest IHEC, ISCI and Sadrists each have little coalitions of their own, named Muwatin and Ahrar respectively.]  To some extent, it may be a healthy tendency that all these three groups should remain in competition in the governorates south of Baghdad. However through this act of coalition-forming, coming on top of the recent decision to create purely Shiite alliances in Shiite-minority governorates like Diyala and Salahaddin (some say also Nineveh but not confirmed by IHEC yet), it is clear that Maliki will not be using the local elections of April 2013 to build bridges to Sunnis and secularists. At one point it was rumoured he even tried to get ISCI included in his coalition.

The alternative of reaching out to some Sunnis and secularists wouldn’t have been altogether implausible. Already there were signs that the various Iraqiyya breakaway elements were fragmenting further into pieces that theoretically could have been partners of Maliki rather than opponents in places where there are mixed sectarian demographics or large secular electorates. One such alliance brings together the Nujayfi brothers, Dhafir al-Ani and Ahmad Abu Risha (rumours that the besieged Eisawi should himself have joined is so far only supported by a few secondary sources; as late as four days ago Eisawi was only discussing a possible alliance with Abu Risha according to his own website). Another more recent coalition includes Salih al-Mutlak and Qutayba al-Jibburi, from one of the many Iraqiyya breakaway factions that appeared earlier this year. But with the seemingly arbitrary arrests of people close to Rafi al-Eisawi yesterday, the effect seemed to be that Iraqiyya got some renewed unity as several of its leaders got together to support Eisawi.

If Maliki uses the run-up to the local elections to persevere with his current conflict against the Kurds and intimidate Iraqiyya without building any bridges to disaffected Sunni Arabs in the disputed territories (and possibly also without having the diplomatic buffer of President Jalal Talabani whose health problems have deteriorated sharply in recent days), he will probably lack the parliamentary and political basis for such an escalation. If his approach remains unrealistic, the chances for violence will also go up.

Every article I have published since February 2011 has been written against the backdrop of on-going police persecution and harassment of me initiated by the Norwegian government and supported by several other Western governments. Please visit my other blog for full details.

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Iraq Adopts the Sainte-Lague Method for Its Election Law

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 13 December 2012 12:11

Until recently, a major problem regarding the forthcoming (April 2013) Iraqi local elections was a ruling by the federal supreme court which had deemed the current election law unconstitutional for its seat distribution formula.

Previous revisions had failed to deal with the problem, but today it was solved. The Iraqi parliament voted to adopt changes to the seat distribution formula, taking it from a variant of the largest remainder principle to a formula that gives somewhat better hope for smaller parties: The Sainte-Lague method. The differences between the two systems had been accentuated under the former arrangement since only parties that had already won seats had the chance to win the “leftover” seats following the initial distribution. Sainte Lague is a method which is common in Scandinavia and Germany and several other countries.

Hopefully, this latest change will not only satisfy the Iraqi federal supreme court, but also provide some better chances for smaller parties to gain representation come election time in April next year. A major problem in past Iraqi elections has been the large number of wasted votes cast for parties that fell just short of the thresholds for winning seats.

Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports regarding the withdrawal of the bloc of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from the session today just after the passage of the election law amendments. Some sources claim it had to do with unhappiness with the new election law; others claim it had to do with the next item on the parliamentary agenda – the contested federal supreme court bill. It will be interesting to see which explanation is correct. It seems logical that a big party should dislike a change for better representation, although the call for a change by Maliki’s friends at the supreme court had been quite clear. On the other hand, if rumours that State of Law wanted to go further with Islamizing the federal supreme court are true (some sources claim it insisted on a stronger clerical veto), it would mean a strengthening of the religious tendency that Maliki specifically sought to downplay in the last local elections in 2009. Whichever interpretation is correct, following the initial approval of political entities, the process of joining parties into coalitions for the April elections is now slowly beginning to get underway and will likely provide the best answers about the overall direction of Iraqi politics.


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IHEC Publishes the List of Entities for the April 2013 Local Elections in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 29 November 2012 11:51

The official deadline for registering political parties for next year’s local elections in Iraq on 21 April 2013 expired last Sunday. The Iraqi elections commission continued to handle registrations on Monday and Tuesday but has now published a list that looks more definitive in that it does not any longer include the expression “registered until now”. This being Iraq, it is hard to be certain whether this really is the final list, but it is certainly the most comprehensive account available so far and a brief discussion of these 261 entities can be worthwhile.

It should be said at the outset that the publication of this list, while significant, is not a definitive indication of how the political landscape for the next local elections in Iraq is shaping up. The crucial stage in that respect is the list of coalitions, which on previous occasions has been published as late as one month before the elections themselves. What voters will deal with on election day, after all, is electoral lists, which can be made up of one party or several registered entities joined together on a list. A registration as a separate entity at this stage may well be nothing more than an expression of the hubris of Iraqi politicians who feel the need to have a political party of their own; as in previous elections a key question is the extent to which such hubris can be transcended for the purpose of creating electable lists and viable coalitions when the elections get closer.

With regard to the registered entities themselves, they fall in three main categories.

Firstly, there are all the well-known Kurdish parties. There will not be local elections in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) areas proper on 21 April 2013 although they should have been held long time ago. Smaller Kurdish parties claim the two biggest Kurdish parties are procrastinating. Nonetheless, all of these parties are interested in local elections in disputed areas outside the KRG, and as on previous occasions, it is likely they may coalesce into a single Kurdish coalition to maximize the vote. Kirkuk is outside the KRG but was excepted from the 2009 elections due to disagreement about the rules for ethnic representation and is so far not scheduled to hold elections in April 2013.

Secondly, there are all the parties that in one way or another form part of or have recently split from the secular, often Sunni-backed Iraqiyya coalition. Most of the familiar sub-entities of Iraqiyya have been registered, and there are new sub-entities as well. Well-known entities include the Hadba party of the Nujayfi brothers in Mosul and blocs associated with personalities like Saleh al-Mutlak and Zafer al-Ani. Some of the latest major breakaway factions of Iraqiyya are also running, including Wataniyun, Free Iraqiyya and the blocs of Ali al-Sajri, Iskandar Witwit and Kamil al-Dulaymi and the governor of Salahaddin. Also small sub-entities of Iraqiyya that have materialized very recently, possibly for the purpose of these next local elections, are running. They include blocs headed by Ahmad al-Masari, Talal al-Zubayie, Mustafa al-Hiti, Abdallah Hasan Rashid, Ziyad Tareq Darab and Adnan al-Jannabi. The party of Ahmed Abu Risha, the sahwa leader of Anbar, is also running. To some extent this Sunni/secularist fragmentation is understandable in the local election context, although it should also be seen against the backdrop of growing internal dissension in Iraqiyya over the past year. In an interesting expression either of chaos in the Iraqiyya camp or conceptual confusion regarding the difference between an entity and a coalition, Hadba and Wifaq are registered as separate entities but so are also the larger coalitions of which they sometimes form part – Iraqiyun and Iraqiyya. In the case of Hadba/Iraqiyun, the Nujayfi brothers have registered for one entity each, whereas with Wifaq/Iraqiyya, Ayad Allawi has registered Iraqiyya and left Wifaq to a lower-ranking politician. A notable omission so far is the Iraqi Islamic Party, whose gradual disintegration will be complete if they fail to present lists for the 2013 elections.

Thirdly, all the familiar Shiite Islamist parties have registered as separate entities. This also includes several subdivisions of the Daawa party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, including Tanzim al-Iraq and Tanzim al-Dakhil. It is interesting that in addition to (erstwhile) Maliki ally Ali al-Dabbagh, Shirwan al-Waili is also running a separate entity. There are moreover two entities combining the names “knights” (fursan) and “the law” (qanun). Parties with names like these have previously been described as extreme Maliki supporters, and one of them is indeed headed by Abd al-Sattar Jabar who was also involved in the previous incarnation of the “Knights of the State of Law”. The Sadrists, whose participation was in doubt and/or fragmented in many governorates in 2009, are this time apparently running on a straightforward Ahrar list. The Shaykhis (Shiite sub-sect) of Basra once more mobilise under Amir al-Fayiz. Finally, in a parallel to the situation with respect to Iraqiyya, there is a State of Law registration in the name of Haydar al-Abbadi (presumably the coalition) in addition to the Daawa registration under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. A key question is whether Maliki’s State of Law alliance will run its own ticket or whether it finds it necessary to create wider alliances in the many intra-Shiite contests in Baghdad and the southern governorates.

The seat distribution list per governorate is also confirmed, with minor changes to the previous numbers from 2009. The next step now is candidate registration, with a 25 December 2012 deadline. Some kind of de-Baathification circus will most likely ensue, before the coalitions will likely form official lists early in 2013. One should remember that when all this is going on (and with UNAMI enthusiastically cheering as representative of the outside world), the Iraqi supreme court has reiterated its view that current electoral law is unconstitutional and void due to the seat distribution formula, and parliament has so far failed to pass the mandated changes. The court arrived at its interpretation after the ballots had been cast in the previous elections and the ruling didn’t affect the outcome of those elections retro-actively. This time, however, a warning has been issued. Absent the required legislative action by the Iraqi parliament to clean up the electoral law, the unclear situation could in theory be exploited by the powers that be if they are unhappy with the way winds are blowing in Iraqi politics come April 2013.


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Iraq Is Still Muddling Through

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 11:26

Nearly 10 years on from the start of the Iraq War, Iraq as a political system continues to defy easy classification. It is neither the success story some voices in the Obama administration would like to claim, nor the complete disaster referred to by a growing number of critical pundits – ranging from opponents of the war to those who think the American occupation just wasn’t thorough enough.

With respect to the exaggerated optimism in some corners, the fact that the country is not falling apart does not mean we are seeing a functional democracy in Iraq. Anyone who revisits the “benchmark legislation” goals for national reconciliation that emerged during the Bush years will find that Iraq still lacks an oil and gas law, a supreme court law and a revised constitution which is supposed to create a second federal chamber of parliament. And the problems do not stop with that either. In August, parliament did adopt some changes to the local elections law, supposedly in a move to have the legal framework ready for local elections by early 2013. But the fine print tells a different story: The revisions passed by the Iraqi parliament fail to address a specific distribution mechanisms for “surplus seats” that was ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court as far back as in summer 2010. Instead – and perhaps somewhat symptomatically – the few changes that were made by parliament related to the representation of small ethnic minorities, including Turkmens who had previously not pressed for minority seats outside of their area of territorial concentration in Kirkuk.

Kirkuk of course, under a quintessentially Iraqi arrangement, was exempted from local elections as far back as in 2008 because no one could agree on the rules for the elections there; this problem has yet to be solved too. Changes to the important provincial powers bill were agreed by the government in August but have been met with hostility by deputies for provinces interested in greater autonomy, like Basra and Najaf, and have yet to be passed by parliament. There are also outstanding issues relating to financial affairs after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki decided to camouflage his unhappiness with parts of the 2012 budget through the introduction of a brand new infrastructure bill that also has yet to be passed. Finally, the essentially stalled nature of Iraqi parliamentary politics was only underlined by a recent decision to “agree in principle on the introduction of a proposal for a law for the senate”, even though a final settlement of the matter with the required constitutional amendments seems as distant as ever. Today, parliament is once more on holiday and Maliki has used the opportunity to further centralise power through getting rid of a central bank chief and replacing him with someone thought to be more loyal to him. More parliament holidays are coming up towards the end of the year so it will soon be time to turn to the difficult discussions of the annual budget again.

Meanwhile, though, those claiming that everything is doom and gloom in Iraq will also face problems in their narrative. Despite the polarising impact of Sunni-Shia tensions in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, Iraqi politics has so far failed to collapse fully along sectarian lines. Although there are reports of Iranian support for Assad continuing to flow to Damascus through Iraqi territory, Prime Minister Maliki has at least had meetings with elements of the Syrian opposition and has nominally signalled a commitment to change in Syria, including constitutional change. A landmark Arab League meeting was held in Baghdad in March and was somewhat more successful in terms of attracting the poorer Arab states than critics maintain. Iraqi oil output remains steadily growing, even if the numbers are less spectacular than some analysts had predicted.

Half full or half empty, the underlying political dynamic here remains a matter of concern regardless. Back at the beginning of this year, there seemed to be some hopeful signs that Maliki finally understood that his pragmatism with respect to employing people with ties to the former regime in his bureaucracy needs to be complemented by some inclusion of them in his political coalition too. Turkey’s increasingly heavy footprint in the Kurdish parts of the country may have pushed in the same direction of finding (Sunni) Arab allies in the disputed boundary areas in the north that Maliki can work with. However, the trends during the course of the year – Maliki’s failure to co-opt defectors from the Sunni-dominated, secular Iraqiyya party (who at one point were in plentiful supply), the increased focus on small groups as minorities rather than as potential nationalist alliance partners (the case of the Turkmens), and the renewed attention to a possible Shiite-Kurdish deal on governorate boundaries (including possible changes to the Sunni-dominated Salahaddin governorate) – all indicate Maliki has not managed to exploit the momentum for building a less sectarian alliance that clearly existed in the first part of the year. Quite the contrary, Maliki’s latest failure to get parliamentary support for an enlarged independent electoral commission served as a reminder of his inability to build a more solid political support base beyond his fractious Shiite alliance.

Among the drivers that will decide the outcome are developments in Syria and the regional policy of Turkey. One particularly interesting challenge relates to Turkish support for Iraqi Kurds who in turn advocate more privileges for Syrian Kurds than Ankara is prepared to accept. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect in all of this, however, is the fact that the Iraqi parliament’s failure to complete a mandated revision of the electoral law may play into the hands of those who want no change in the country. As such, it may serve as a pretext for delaying the local elections that are supposed to take place in early 2013, at a time when a shakeup at the local level is perhaps one of the few things that can create some dynamism in a stalled Iraqi political process.


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Iraq’s New Independent Electoral Commission: Some Initial Thoughts

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 17 September 2012 15:06

It looks as if it is going to be a long session for Iraq’s parliament today, so here are some initial reflections on the reported vote by parliament to approve 8 out of 9 new members of the country’s independent electoral commission (IHEC). All that follows is based on the assumption that initial press reports about the vote and the identity of the new councilors are correct. The official parliamentary report is due later today and should be taken as the final word.

For many weeks, the battlefront regarding the make-up of the new electoral commission board has concerned its size. The decision last week to keep the current size of the board (9 members) was seen as a setback for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had apparently hoped to expand the board to 15 with the aim of diluting the political influence of his enemies.

It can be worthwhile, therefore, to begin with a brief look at the political composition of the new board and compare it to the old one. Most reports suggest that of the 8 new commissioners, 4 are from the Shiite alliance (two from Daawa, one from ISCI, one from the Sadrists), two are from the secular and increasingly Sunni-backed Iraqiyya and two are from the Kurdistan alliance. There is  an unresolved question as to whether a final ninth member of the commission, supposedly a minority representative, will be a Turkmen or a Christian. Compare this with the previous IHEC, which pre-dated Maliki’s rise to power. It also had 4 Shiite Islamists, but only 1 was considered close to Maliki – the rest being closer to ISCI, Fadila and the Sadrists respectively. There were 2 Kurds (same as today), but Iraqiyya had only one commissioner close to them, the two remaining members of the board originally having been considered close to the Shiite Islamist Tawafuq alliance.

On the balance, then, Maliki has apparently seen his position improve slightly, but not a lot. The ISCI-Iraqiyya-Kurdish-Sadrist alliance that threatened him earlier this year commands perhaps as many as 6 seats on the new board. It makes you understand why Maliki had wanted 15 commissioners instead, ideally with some space for his newfound allies in the smaller parliamentary blocs among the Kurdish opposition and the Iraqiyya splinter groups. Today, there were even reports that members of the second branch of Maliki’s Daawa party, the Tanzim al-Iraq faction, were unhappy that the mainline Daawa had monopolized two commissioner seats for the State of Law coalition to which they both belong.

Every little will count, in other words, so it will be interesting to see who the ninth commissioner will be, whether Turkmen or Christian. One Iraqiyya spokesman has already said he is in favour of the Turkmen female candidate, Gulshan Kamal. It should be added in this respect that there is no legal or constitutional requirement that any sect be represented. The IHEC law from 2007 only stipulates that there should be at least 2 lawyers on the board, that the rest should be “experts” in electoral affairs, that they should be politically independent, and that the representation of women should be taken into regard.

It seems the female representation requirement has been given only a very symbolic nod today (in the possible ninth seat for a Turkmen female). The political “independence” criterion hasn’t been taken seriously at any point since the IHEC law was passed. From the legal point of view, perhaps the most glaring question is whether a parliament vote on 8 members is valid when 9 are called for by the law.

In any case, attention will now turn to the local elections scheduled for 2013. Perhaps those elections, in turn, can produce some new alliances that can help breathe life into Iraq’s stalemated politics.

Posted in Iraq local elections 2013 | 3 Comments »

Parliamentary Setback for Maliki in the Electoral Commission Struggle

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 14 September 2012 9:23

Iraqi parliamentary politics briefly got exciting again on Thursday, as one of the first contested votes in a long time divided the chamber along interesting lines.

Contested votes are comparatively rare in Iraqi politics. Usually, bills never come up for a vote until the political leaders have ruminated on them for so long that consensus is achieved through sheer exhaustion (or, not infrequently, by watering down the bills to the point where they are meaningless and/or contradictive and hence acceptable). Dissent is often marginal and not taken note of at all: Parliamentary  records typically include a notice to the effect that this or that bill passed with a “majority”. Usually, this will have meant that the chamber – rarely more than two thirds full even on the best of days – will have passed the bill with a solid margin of maybe 80 or 90% of deputies voting in favour.

For this reason, the comparatively rare contested votes in the Iraqi parliament tend to receive attention. Memorable past ones include the cliffhanger vote on the law for forming federal regions in October 2006, the battle over the provincial elections law in 2008, and the fight over a new parliamentary speaker in the first part of 2009. Interestingly, most of those votes to some extent touched on disputes relating to fundamental issues of state structure, with the Kurds and advocates of stronger centralization siding with opposite camps on all three occasions.

Yesterday’s developments in parliament belong to the long-running saga of installing a new electoral commission for Iraq (IHEC). In fact, that process has already seen one contested vote last year, when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to sack the existing board but lost the vote in parliament. The term of the current IHEC board has now expired and it survives only through monthly extensions of its mandate granted by parliament in lieu of agreement on a new board. The big decisions relate to how many seats the board will have (there are currently nine commissioners) and who should fill them.

In this dispute, Maliki has identified himself with a proposal to extend the number of commissioners from 9 to 15. Presumably, the thinking behind this is that a big commission could be more susceptible to divide and rule strategies, and Maliki is probably also eager to find seats on the commission for newfound friends of his in splinter groups from the secular Iraqiyya and the Kurds (Goran). Maliki allies have said openly that they fear a 9-person board would have a too strong pro-Iraqiyya contingent (maybe 3 commissioners).

A law featuring proposed changes to the existing law for the electoral board – including the Maliki-sponsored increase of the number of commissioner – has been making its way forward in the Iraqi parliament and yesterday was ready for a vote. However, instead of adopting the changes, parliament voted to cancel the proposed changes.

This is where the political dimension comes into play. The official parliamentary record says 233 deputies were present when parliament opened. Press accounts say pro-Maliki deputies from his own State of Law coalition, White (Iraqiyya breakaway group), Fadila and Goran (Kurdish opposition party) left the chamber in protest, leaving deputies from Iraqiyya, the Kurdistan Alliance, ISCI and the Sadrists to vote down the changes. Just to complicate matters further, there are two accounts of how many MPs were present during the contested vote: Parliament speaker Nujayfi of Iraqiyya says 169 deputies were in the chamber (above the quorum level at 163); Maliki ally Khalid al-Atiyya says there were 156 deputies (less than the required quorum).

Whichever interpretation is correct, the vote yesterday should serve as another wakeup call for Maliki with respect to his narrow support base in parliament. Essentially, the forces who threw out his attempt to increase the number of IHEC commissioners were the same that tried to unseat him earlier this spring. Even though Maliki appears to have made some progress in drawing parts of Iraqiyya closer to him than to their nominal leader, Ayyad Allawi, this is of limited consequence unless he can get them to vote with him in key parliamentary contests like this one. Earlier this week, Allawi – who is technically a deputy but who rarely visits the national assembly – appeared briefly at the parliament building to discuss with the components of the Iraqiyya alliance. Allawi will likely see this latest vote as something of a vindication after a rather bumpy ride and multiple Iraqiyya defections during the first half of 2012.

Absent any supreme court challenges regarding the quorum, the debate about IHEC is now likely to focus on the identity of the 9 commissioners. The legal requirement that they be independent from party politics has long been forgotten, across the board.

Posted in Iraq local elections 2013 | 4 Comments »

Provincial Elections Law Revisions in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 2 August 2012 8:43

At a time when most Iraqi politicians seem to consider the cabinet crisis to be over,  attention is increasingly turning to the next local elections, scheduled for early 2013. More and more, it is being suggested that major political reform may well end up on the back burner again, with a decision on the electoral commission composition perhaps the most prominent issue of the day (it is also on the agenda as parliament meets today).

Yesterday finally saw a vote on revisions to the provincial electoral law that originally dates back to 2008. Symptomatically, perhaps, the revisions have yet to be published on the parliament website! But at least some features are known from press reports.

The problem with the revised law is that the Iraqi supreme court has already deemed it unconstitutional, at least if press reports about the contents are true. This is so because the revised law reportedly keeps the principle of allotting surplus seats to winning parties only, using the largest remainder principle. In 2010, the supreme court, based on a request from the small communist party, specifically ruled this arrangement “undemocratic” (and therefore unconstitutional), and demanded change to a more proportional allocation formula. Apparently, this aspect – which after all was one of the main reasons there was a need to change the law in the first place – was conveniently forgotten by Iraqi politicians yesterday. In other words, once more Iraq is saddled with a law that will be unconstitutional from the get-go.

Other reported changes concern the allotment of additional minority seats for Fayli Kurds and Turkmens (the latter reportedly in Baghdad). Again, this may be indicative of a trend in Iraqi politics. The previous iteration of the law only gave true micro-minorities (Yazidis, Christians, Shabak etc.) seats in particular governorates, whereas medium-sized minorities like the Turkmens and the Fayli Kurds were left with the option of mobilizing within the framework of the ideologically defined (non-ethnic) parties. Inevitably, one gets the impression that the more Iraqis are encouraged to vote in closed ethnic constituencies, the smaller the prospect for the development of a truly national political fabric. With recent moves to expand the size of the electoral commission, it is conceivable that this trend will only continue to grow further.

Meanwhile, one interesting aspect of the decision yesterday on electoral law changes is the political dynamic. It was reportedly a deal between the two biggest coalitions, Iraqiyya and State of Law, that led to agreement. These two groups will both benefit from maintaining the current, largest-remainder for winning blocs principle regarding the “surplus” seats. For their part, Shiite parties outside Prime Minister Maliki’s bloc like Fadila and the Sadrists have already been prominent in criticizing yesterday’s parliament decision. A major elephant in the room, of course, was the disputed city of Kirkuk, which never held elections in 2009, and where the issue of ethnic quota seats remains a big problem.

This is an ironic reminder, then, about how State of Law and Iraqiyya could have got things done in parliament if their leaders could just hate each other a little less. Symptomatically, perhaps, when the two finally did vote together in parliament, it was on an issue that is likely to maximize their own powers in the crudest sense imaginable, at the expense of the smaller forces in Iraqi politics.

Posted in Iraq local elections 2013, Iraqi constitutional issues | 4 Comments »