The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

Iraqi Elections: The Fuel for Controversies

Kurdish Herald Vol. 2 Issue 1, February 2010 -

by Delovan Barwari


Today, new alliances, divisions, conflict, and uncertainty define the political climate in Baghdad as the parliamentary elections scheduled for 7 March 2010 approach. At the center of disputes are the Hydrocarbon Law, revenue sharing, and the Kurdish-Arab conflicts over the disputed areas and the status of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution on the one hand, and the explosive issue of barring more than 450 politicians due to alleged ties to the banned Ba’ath Party from elections on the other.


Election coverage by Iraqi television stations, newspapers, and online news sources has been dominated by these contentious issues, and with so many remaining unsolved, the election and the success of the next government will be a litmus test for the health of Iraqi democracy.


Shi’ite and Sunni Alliances and Disagreements    

At the dawn of democracy in Iraq, votes were cast primarily along sectarian lines. While many Sunni Arabs boycotted Iraq’s inaugural legislative election in January 2005, more consistent and robust voter turnout in the December 2005 elections led to a parliament containing significant representation to each major constituent of Iraq’s population, with the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance, the Kurdish alliance (dominated by two major Kurdish parties), and the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accord Front capturing the top three spots.


However, the Iraqi political scene is considerably less simple and confessional than it was just a few years ago.


Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who became head of government primarily as a compromise candidate, has emerged as a strong leader with a large following of his own. Having aggressively worked to consolidate power, he has broken from the Shi’ite alliance, rebranded himself as non-sectarian, and won the support of many voters. He formed his own electoral alliance, State of Law, which was the big winner of Iraq’s most recent local elections. In preparation for the upcoming national elections, a number of prominent Sunni tribal leaders have joined this list.


Parliament of Iraq. AP Photo


On the other hand, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite and former Ba’athist, has formed an alliance with some of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians including Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Islamic Party and prominent Sunni Arab MP Saleh al-Mutlaq and his parliamentary group.


Iraq’s once dominant political force, the large Shi’ite bloc that originally put Prime Minister Maliki in power, can no longer be assumed to be an automatic winner, as they had perhaps the most disappointing performance of all established Iraqi political alliances in the most recent local elections. Today’s incarnation of the Shi’ite bloc, now called the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a rather shaky alliance between the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and a number of smaller groups, including Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari’s Islah faction, and a number of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, some of whom have been previously arrested by American forces for their involvement in kidnapping and murder. A small number of Sunni Arabs are running on the INA list, including Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a relative of Iraq’s royal family who, as the leader of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, was very active in the Iraqi opposition during the time of Saddam. There are already some tensions emerging between different factions within the INA; recently, Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement against the SIIC leader Ammar al-Hakim after al-Hakim labeled certain insurgent groups that targeted other Iraqis as murderers. Sadr, known for his anti-U.S. stance, publicly called Hakim’s statements unacceptable, and it remains to be seen how this public falling-out will affect election dynamics within the INA.


A significant issue with the potential to prompt renewed sectarian attacks and move Iraq once again toward civil war is the recent decision by a commission, led by a Shi’ite politician previously linked to a Shi’ite armed group, to ban over 450 candidates. The ruling has linked some of the most prominent Sunni politicians with the outlawed Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein, disqualifying them from the upcoming elections. Opponents of the verdict view the decision as a political move by either the Iraqi National Alliance or Prime Minister Maliki to undermine his political opponents, most significantly the Sunnis.


A recent compromise ruling by the Iraqi appeals court overturned the ban on the 450 candidates in the upcoming elections but will prevent them from participating in politics until they are cleared of links to the Ba’athist regime. The latest move has sparked controversies on both sides as opponents of the original court verdict want a complete repeal of the ban and proponents are outraged by the appeals court’s compromise. The fate of those politicians that are elected and are not capable of being cleared of links to the Ba’ath party may fuel a conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis that has, fortunately, not been seen in Iraq for years.


    Kurdish Political Divisions

Change List supporters wave flags & signs as a caravan of KDP/PUK supporters drive by in a busy street in Sulaymaniyah.


In the last elections, nearly all of the Kurdish political parties, along with a number of Chaldo-Assyrian and Turkmen parties, entered the elections under a banner called the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan (DPAK). DPAK secured 53 of the 275 parliamentary seats, became a key player in Iraqi politics, and allowed Kurds to expand their political influence in Baghdad. As a result of DPAK’s strong showing in the national parliamentary elections, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Secretary General Jalal Talabani, became the first Kurd in Iraq’s history to become president of the country.


However, the political atmosphere in Iraqi Kurdistan has changed quite significantly since then. A new opposition group, known simply as "Change" (or "Gorran" in Kurdish), has emerged in Iraqi Kurdistan as a strong political force. This new group is led by Jalal Talabani’s former deputy, Newshirwan Mustafa. The Change List received enough votes to turn heads, winning the majority of votes in the Sulaymaniyah province and receiving nearly 25% of total votes in the Kurdistan Region. Many analysts expect the Change List to have a strong showing in the upcoming Iraqi national elections and, as Kirkuk will also be voting, some believe that the Change List will receive an even greater share of Kurdish votes this time around.


The new political reality in Kurdistan may weaken the Kurdish position in Baghdad as the fundamental source of Kurdish power has been previously fueled by the united stance of the various Kurdish political groups. Today, there are three major Kurdish political lists entering the Iraqi elections independently. The largest of the three remains the bloc led by the President of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, and the current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (from the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PUK, respectively), which will be joined once again by a number of smaller Kurdish political parties. The newly-emerged Change List will be the second largest political bloc that is comprised of a number of important players who formerly identified themselves with the PUK. Another noticeable political power is an alliance between the two Islamic parties in Kurdistan, the Islamic Group and the Islamic Union.


Major issues remaining unsolved


Among the most earthshaking dilemmas that have the potential to divide Iraq or drag it into another bloody battle front is the Kurdish-Arab tension over the longstanding debate about the implementation of Article 140 that defines a resolution for the disputed areas and that Kurds have been pressuring the government to implement for years the Hydrocarbon Law, and revenue sharing.


Over the years, the Iraqi government and KRG have been at odds over these issues; in numerous occasions the Iraqi army and Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional forces, the Peshmerga, came close to firing shots at one another. As the level of tension escalated near boiling point, it became one of the most central issues addressed by U.S. President Obama’s administration.


Kurdish political leaders have been seeking alliances with other groups that will potentially compromise on these issues; particularly that of the disputed areas and the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Various Kurdish media outlets previously reported that the Change List was preparing to align itself with some of the Shi’ite political groups but the rumors did not pan out. The lack of agreements or alliances is an indicator of the remaining discord between Kurds and Arabs over the disputed areas.


Last month, however, SIIC leader Ammar al-Hakim expressed support for the implementation of Article 140 and respect for other sections of the Iraqi constitution as a way to achieve peace in Iraq. Of course, the statement was not a total surprise, as the Hakim family’s relationship with the Kurdish movement in Iraq dates back to the 1960s when the two sides allied with one another in opposition to the central government. That said, many other major Shi’ite factions in Iraq have adopted a much harsher tone toward the demands of the Kurdish leadership and people.

Elections: A make it or break it - deal for Iraq    

New political alliances, division, chaos, and uncertainty are the defining words that come to mind when analyzing the upcoming Iraqi Parliamentary election on March 7th. Without a doubt, the level of chaos, tension, and the escalation in the number of bombings has revealed the true nature of the political climate in Iraq. The current and historical predicament in Iraq exemplifies that the only viable resolution for stability and prosperity in Iraq is a federal and democratic solution for all regions, similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.


On the one hand, Washington DC’s recent overt recognition and assurance of supporting Kurdistan Region as a federal and autonomous region, and the American pledge to help resolve the longstanding issues related to the disputed areas, Hydrocarbon Law, and revenue signals a new political reality with respect to U.S. policy towards Iraq. On the other hand, the emergence of the Change List and the existence of separate Kurdish lists will certainly weaken the Kurdish posture and may harm Kurdish interests if the various Kurdish factions cannot work together following the polls.


Bomb explosions in the flashpoint city of Kerkuk in Iraq.


Delovan Barwari served as an independent contractor for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2005. He was also a former technical analyst in Baghdad and Kerkuk and worked as a liaison between the U.S. Civil Military Operation Center in Duhok and the KRG.


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