Iraq’s Provincial Elections
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FDD Intelligence Briefing
January 29, 2009
- IRAQIS GO TO THE POLLS. On January 31, 2009, Iraqis will go to the polls to select their political representatives in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. This will mark the fourth time since 2005 that Iraq has held elections. Previous votes include January 2005 elections to select provincial representatives and an interim national assembly to draft Iraq’s constitution (an election that Iraq’s Sunnis largely boycotted); an October 2005 referendum on the national constitution; and parliamentary elections in December 2005. Iraq will also hold elections later this year for the national parliament, and to consider the U.S.-Iraq security pact.
- FEAR OF VIOLENCE. There have always been heightened concerns about the potential for violence when Iraq has held elections, and this year is no exception. However, levels of violence were surprisingly low on all three election days in 2005. This year, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are preparing for possible outbreaks of violence, particularly in the ethnically mixed Diyala province where tensions between the Arab and Kurdish population have simmered. Time reports that “U.S. commanders last week brokered a deal” for Diyala “that will see area security provided by a joint force of Iraqi-army and Peshmerga fighters, with U.S. troops present to make sure everyone stays calm.”
- TURNOUT. There were initially concerns that turnout for the elections might be low since they were scheduled at the time of a traditional Shia pilgrimage to Karbala that typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. Shia religious and political leaders have been working with the pilgrims to facilitate voting. But despite the timing of the elections, it appears that there will be a large turnout on Saturday: a recent poll conducted by Iraq’s government found that 73% of Iraqi adults intend to vote.
- ANBAR ELECTIONS. Once written off by U.S. intelligence officials as overrun by violent groups (in particular, al-Qaeda in Iraq) and unsalvageable, improvements in the majority Sunni Anbar province have been dramatic. Less than 1% of Anbar’s population voted in the January 2005 election, due to the Sunni boycott of the elections and the threat of violence. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), the only major Sunni party participating in the 2005 elections, won control of the province—but it has been criticized for failing to provide basic services. The Awakening movement is challenging the IIP in the upcoming election. There has been a great deal of mutual animosity during the political campaign, and some observers fear that “any hint of vote fraud could lead to ‘profound instability’ there.”
- THE KURDISH ANGLE. Recognizing the potential for a shift in power, Kurdish leaders are going to great lengths to get out the Kurdish vote in provinces outside of Kurdistan, particularly Diyala and Ninawa. Kurdish officials intend to bus thousands of voters from Suleymaniya (in Kurdistan) to vote in Diyala’s Khanaqin municipality elections. “Their names are registered here. They just work in Suleymania,” said a Kurdish official.
- THE BATTLE FOR BASRA. Another hotly contested election is occurring in the oil-rich southern province of Basra, where over 1,000 candidates are vying for just 35 seats. Political campaigning by the four major Shia factions has been heavy. Recognizing the importance of Basra, senior Iraqi leaders (including prime minister Nouri al-Maliki) have traveled to the province to campaign on behalf of their parties.
- A POWER SHIFT? The religious parties, which have largely controlled the provincial governments until now, may decline in power. In a recent poll sponsored by the Iraqi government, “41 percent of respondents said they preferred secular candidates, while 31 percent said they would support candidates supported by religious parties.” While this poll has been questioned, it is clear that the influence of Muqtada al-Sadr, once a major force in Shia politics, has waned. Time notes: “The Sadrists seem to have taken a cue from their lack of popularity and decided not to field candidates officially in the provincial elections. Instead, the Sadrists are quietly backing some candidates who maintain an association with the movement…. If candidates tied to the movement fail to make a decent showing in cities such as Basra, Amarah, Najaf and Karbala, the Sadrists’ only official political power will be in the Iraqi parliament, where they hold 28 of 275 seats.”
- A SIGN OF RECONCILIATION? Since Sunni turnout was low in 2005, Kurdish and Shia politicians have wielded a disproportionate amount of political power in mixed provinces. This election may more accurately represent the Iraqi population. The International Crisis Group’s Robert Malley comments: “Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all-out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point. Despite likely shortcomings, they may begin to redress some of the most severe problems associated with the 2005 vote, assuring fairer representation of all segments of the population.”