Recently, we haven’t been paying a lot of attention to Iraq. When we do hear something, we hear about a prolonged and possibly rather disorderly process reflecting an incompetent or maybe recalcitrant embodiment of Democracy. There are, in fact, some interesting and reasonably democratic forces at play, along with some that are less so. In any case, the type of democracy they have is somewhat complicated, especially at the current stage they. The situation is sometimes represented as a competition between two guys, Iyad Allawi and his people, and Nouri Al Maliki and his people. We see Mr. Allawi insisting that he won, while Mr. Al Maliki is being a very bad sport, using all of the resources he can muster as the incumbent to change the outcome, so far without success. And, at some level, this is all too true.
But there are some significant, and quite reasonable players driving events behind the scenes. The focus on Iyad Allawi and Nouri Al Maliki is not entirely surprising. They both have the American seal of approval. Mr. Al Maliki has, for the most part, been doing our bidding for several years, and Mr. Allawi has lived most of his adult life in the US, and was part of the original group that planned the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. It is oft mentioned that Mr. Allawi is a Shiite with a strong Sunni following, but I am thinking he is most likely a garden variety Western secular person with no particular interest in the sectarian issues that drive native Iraqis. Al Maliki was most likely approved by US ‘advisers’ because, when he left the country during the Iran Iraq war, he retreated to Syria, a secular country, rather than the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In fact, two coalitions more or less tied for first place in this election. The Iraqiya Coalition, with which Mr. Allawi is associated, and the State of Law Coalition, with which Mr. Al Maliki is associated. It’s true that Al Iraqiya won 91 seats, and The State of Law, only 89. Out of 325 seats, this means that each won about 28% of the total seats. The difference between the 2 leading coalitions was less than 1%. This is a statistically meaningless difference. To form a government requires the complicity of a group representing at least 50% of the seats.
This gives Iyad Allawi, as leader of Al Iraqiya, the right to make the first attempt at forming a government. This is going to be difficult for Mr. Allawi because the coalition doesn’t represent any particular block of the population, and was assembled from diverse streams, one by one. State of Law, however, is a break away from a much larger coalition of Shiite streams. And there isn’t anything to stop State of Law from negotiating behind the scenes to pull together their own resources for forming a government behind the scenes. The result is a lot of confusion and complaining.
Assuming the veracity of the previous statement, then there is going to be some stress in the system. With Mr. Allawi and Mr. Al Maliki facing off for battle, we tend to see the contest in terms of (their) personalities. We are encouraged, for instance, to judge Mr. Allawi on the fact that there are Sunnis in his coalition, so he might be a particularly fair minded individual. We have been informed that Mr. Al Maliki, though he cooperated reasonably well with the occupation forces for the last 4 years, is a potential Iranian dupe. And, of course, Mr. Al Maliki is using government resources, albeit without much success, to shore up his position through some rather shoddy tactics. Both are presented to us as potential Iraqi ‘strongmen’, something we are told the Iraqis need. But how much of a ‘strongman’ can a puppet be?
We are invited to consider the injustice of having a largely Shia government over the recently disenfranchised (20%) Sunni population. I find the last argument particularly ironic given the utter lack of concern we, in the West, have shown for the Shiite majority in Iraq over the last hundred years or so, not to mention the Shiite majority in Lebanon (whose leadership are designated ‘terrorists’), and sizeable Shiite minorities in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, whom the US is concerned will somehow become empowered and inconvenience the states in which they reside. Our preference for those Shiites is that they keep their heads down and avoid resistance, leaving the power to our longtime Sunni Allies in the region.
But there is a whole other level on which the final decision will be made, and which is not very clear to Americans. Not only is it unclear because we don’t hear much about it, but it fades into the background because the process is so different from the one that underlies our own democracy. We vote for a presidential candidate because we want person X to be president. The Iraqis vote for Parliamentarians kind of the way we vote for Congressmen and Senators based a variety of local and federal issues, and local party affiliations. The local vote in Iraq is, in fact, even further removed from their federal results because there are many small local parties that only join together at a higher level.
We have 2 parties with some auxiliaries which largely support the main parties. In Iraq, they have many streams, which join various larger streams and eventually end up in the large coalitions we know about. In fact there are at least 5 coalitions all the way up at the level where a Government must be assembled and a Prime Minister chosen. They do not have the same consistency and identity that the parties here have. Iraqiya and State of Law are the largest, but the next largest is the National coalition, which is largely comprised of the rest of the Shia not affiliated with the State of Law including the Sadrists and ISCI, well known to us for their early precedence in the Iraq Government . From our standpoint, they seem like insiders and outsiders, but from a local perspective, they are just are a diverse group of Shiite Islamist streams with deep roots in their communities.
The National coalition, among whom the Sadrists are currently the largest block, won 70 seats, 22% to the 28% each held by Iraqiya and State of Law, without a presumptive Prime Minister. The Sadrists hold 40 of the 70 seats. They say they are happy to join forces with the State of Law coalition, but under no circumstances will they accept Al Maliki as Prime Minister. According to Ameer Al Kinani, a prominent member of the Sadrist block, the Sadrists don’t have any problem teaming up with the Iraqiya coalition either. However, they also reject Iyad Allawi as a potential Prime Minister.
To make the point, several months ago, the Sadrists held a referendum in the areas where they are strong to find out the people’s choice for Prime Minister. Ibrahim Al Jaafari won. PM, Al Kinani said that although Ibrahim Al Jaafari is not their first choice for Prime Minister, they will accept him in that position because he is the choice of the people. When asked if the Sunnis in the Iraqiya coalition presented a problem to the Sadrists, he said that they do not. Any democratically elected person should have their seat in Parliament. The thing is, Prime Minister is a political position, not an elected one.
The Sadrists are positioning themselves politically, in a similar way to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It’s not a surprise that their strategies resemble those of Hezbollah, not only because of the Iranian connection, but more directly because Hassan Nasrallah, the popular Secretary General of Hezbollah studied with Muqtada Al Sadr’s uncle. They are a nationalist party opposed to international intervention. They are supported by the working class and, and say that they advocate a direct vote sort of democracy. Though affiliated with the Shiite Religious hierarchy, they are politically open those with similar political agendas. Both Al Maliki and Allawi are tainted through their relationships with the occupier. The Sadrist Block supported Al Maliki in his ascent to power, but he did not respond to their needs. His focus on the ‘Rule of Law’ was enacted at their expense, while he failed to provide promised services and support systems for the people. Fresh water, sanitation and electricity are still extremely limited in Iraq, and especially in Baghdad.
The Kurds hold another 40 seats in the new Parliament. Jalal Talabani is a popular first choice for President across pretty much all coalitions. Talabani has been doing a lot of running around, and wining and dining of various groups since the election. For a while, leading up to the election, it appeared he might retire, but the stakes are just too high. Though President of Iraq is a largely ceremonial position, Talabani uses it well. He is a facilitator, adviser and lobbyist, well liked and trusted by players on all sides, other than, perhaps, the Kurdish Gorran Party who are defectors from his own PUK party. Numerous open and clandestine negotiations take place at his complex in Suleimaniya.
It is likely that the Kurds’ support will be required for any coalition to be large enough to form a Government. The Kurds aren’t necessarily concerned about who will be the Prime Minister, though they have had some problems in the past with Iyad Allawi, and Nouri Al Maliki has not applied the law to resolve the status of Kirkuk, a critical issue for them. They are also not concerned about whether or not there are more or less Sunnis in their coalition. They have worked with the Shiites so far, though they are mostly Sunni themselves. However they do have some serious conditions for their support. In order to receive their support, a coalition and it’s leadership must agree to enact Article 140 in the Iraqi Constitution. This article says that they will hold a referendum in Kirkuk to decide whether or not Kirkuk will be adjoined to the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
This is an interesting issue as there are lots of innuendo and dissembling around it. Although the Kurds in Northern Iraq have been very helpful to the US during the lead up to the war and up to this point, and they do seem to have broad support from the US, the Kirkuk issue is where the line is drawn. The US in particular, and the UN representing the international community are opposed to holding this referendum. The Iraq government dithered and procrastinated and avoided their responsibility to enact this proposal from the day it was written to this day. The International Crisis Group, an advisory group to the UN has written a report which suggests that if the referendum were held, it would lead to a civil war, a seemingly rather extreme prediction for a number of reasons. Instead they suggest some variations on making the city a UN Protectorate, a solution that would put the oil rights, a critical point of contention, in limbo.
Not resolving a dispute seems an odd way of keeping peace. Arabization programs 30 – 40 years ago, they are not keen on seeing it become, once again, a Kurdish center of power. Early in the war, Kurds began returning to their homes in Kirkuk. Some Arabs were starting to leave, when the US promised to provide compensation to Arabs who chose to leave and allow the Kurds to return. At this point, they stopped leaving and set down to wait for their compensation, with the Kurds camped in their back yards, so to speak. But, the US never provided the compensation and a situation which was resolving itself, turned inward and began to boil. The current status is the result of a strategy on non-resolution.
There is a mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen in Kirkuk. The city was primarily a Kurdish city when Saddam began his Arabization campaign, and it lies just on the border of the region governed by the Kurdish Regional Government. Are there now enough Kurds present to win a referendum? Probably. The Kurds did not win the regional elections around Kirkuk, but they lost on a technicality. They tied the winners without a significant number of votes that went to the new Kurdish Party, Gorran, which did not get enough votes overall to be seated. Had those votes gone to the Kurdish Coalition, they would have been 2 seats ahead of the united opposition. So, would the Kurds win? Probably, but a decision based on a referendum would make a resolution possible either way.
While we are worrying about whether Iran will have excessive influence over the post-election formation of a Government in Iraq, and our government is most assuredly making some attempt to support their favored players in this process, internal forces are at work that will likely define the form that a future government will take. I have discussed at some length, the interests of two relatively powerful second level coalitions. The Kurds and the Sadrists appear at opposite polarities in the Iraqi political spectrum, but both have specific goals and are willing to compromise to have them met. Both have problems with the presumptive Prime Ministers. Both are looking at ways to address their concerns within the democratic system.
In a process where little streams trickle into larger ones and coalitions are formed like great rivers from hundreds of little streams flowing from the mountains, the voice of the people will coalesce in a very different way than in a rigidly defined 2 party system like our own. We should be very careful about making assumptions about who will prevail and what the end result will look like. We should also hope that our government will leave the Iraqi process enough room so that the Government will be formed through a meaningful consensus, which is the only way it can possibly be empowered to handle the challenges of an independent nation. Without a measure of unity and internal integrity, the new government will not be able to ensure the ultimate withdrawal of the occupying forces.
So how do I want to conclude this piece? What important conclusions can we draw from the facts above? First, and most importantly, the Iraqis do know what a democracy is, and they are capable of asserting their rights within a democratic system. Next, it would seem that the second level of integrated powers in Iraq are discounted by the West, but if the democratic process is allowed to play out, they will strongly influence the shape Iraq’s new government will take, and the shape of Iraq’s future. Finally, I would assume, if Nouri Al Maliki or Iyad Allawi is the next Prime Minister, that the democratic process was derailed by external influences.
JUDITH BELLO can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org