Friday, June 21, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #25: The Ninewa and Anbar Elections and the future of Iraq's Sunni Leadership

This week, Iraq’s Sunnis faced a critical decision to elect or reject politics. In the provincial elections held in Ninewa and Anbar on June 20, voter turnout in Anbar sustained; however, turnout in Ninewa was significantly lower, which could indicate growing Sunni frustration and retreat from political process. The electoral fortunes of the coalitions participating will indicate who will emerge as the key leadership of the Iraqi Sunnis. In particular, the fortunes of the Nujaifis will signal their mandate to continue as the most prominent Sunni national political figures. In Ninewa, the election results will dictate the tenor of relations between the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs. Finally, the performance of Maliki’s Sunni allies in both provinces will influence his strategy as the 2014 elections approach.  

Provincial elections in Ninewa and Anbar occurred on Thursday, June 20. Elections in the two predominantly Sunni provinces had been postponed originally until July 4, while other provincial elections were held as scheduled on April 20. The Council of Ministers headed by Maliki made this decisionin March, ostensibly for security reasons after the targetingof candidates and poll workers in both provinces. The decision to delay the elections, however, was also very likely intended to provide Maliki allies with the opportunity to enhance their electoral fortunes. On account of the objections of other local politicians in Ninewa and Anbar and pressure from the Independent High Electoral Commission [IHEC], the Council of Ministers decidedto hold the delayed elections earlier on June 20. 

Ninewa and Anbar have been the major centersof anti-government protests since their outbreak in December 2012. The first casualties from clashes between the protesters and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) occurred in Fallujah in January and Mosul in March.  Political conditions and violence escalated in both provinces in the aftermath of the Aprilevents in Hawija. In Ninewa, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiya [JRTN] started to mobilize and emerged as a force that is poised to play a role in a potential low-level Iraqi Sunni uprising. In the immediate aftermath of Hawija’s events, JRTN was reportedly able to achieve temporary controlover an entire the whole neighborhood of 17 July in western Mosul. In Anbar, the aftermath of Hawija represented a turning point pushing local tribes to decideto form the tribal “Army of Pride and Dignity.” According to Qusay al-Zain, a senior protest organizer, the purposeof the tribal army is to “defend the honor, freedom, and dignity of the ‘ahl al-sunna’ [Sunnis] from Maliki and his militias.” 

The affairs of the anti-government protests have also been influenced by the recent remobilizationof Iraqi Shi’a militias in Baghdad. The perceived threat of that remobilization has increased a sense of fear and charged the sectarian atmosphere. As an illustration, the protesters namedone of their Friday protests “The Path of Our Movement Will Conquer your Militias” the same week that news emerged of Iraqi Shi’a militia reactivation in Baghdad. This raises questions about how sectarianism will affect voter behavior in these elections.

Another significant factor is the recent enhancement of the political fortunes of Iraqi Sunnis in Baghdad and Diyala. Prior to the Ninewa and Anbar elections, the Iraqi Sunni political scene experienced two important developments. In Baghdad, Mutahidun struck an alliance with anti-Maliki Iraqi Shi’a groups like the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) that secured Mutahidun the provincial council chairmanship in the province. In Diyala, the Iraqi Sunnis were able to maintainthe governor position after governor Omar al-Hamiri was reelected. Hamiri’s reelection was also the result of an agreement struck with the Sadrists. These events illustrate that politics is still a viable option for Iraqi Sunnis, but the Ninewa and Anbar elections are more indicative of their future acceptance of politics given the history of insurgency in both provinces.   
Nevertheless, throughout the spring of 2013, the anti-government protests functioned as defining political features of Ninewa and Anbar, and they have played a major role in shaping the opinions of prospective voters as well as Sunni political platforms. Recent observations that the protests have lately begun to recede or divide have elevated concern that dissident Sunni elements may abandonthe political process altogether. This makes the elections a barometer of how the Iraqi Sunni residents of these two provinces currently weigh their options between politics and insurgency.    

Electoral Politics of Ninewa 

There were thirty nine seats slated for election in Ninewa. Three of them are set aside for minority groups like Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak. 28 political groups competed for the seats with a combined total of 637 candidates. There were almost 1,800,000 eligible voters. Four coalitions are most likely to be competitive in the Ninewa election: 

Mutahidun (The United): Mutahidun is a coalition of predominately Iraqi Sunni groups includingthe Hadba list, which won 19 seats in the 2009 provincial elections. It has the backing of the governor of Ninewa, Atheel al-Nujaifi, and his brother, the speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR), Osama al-Nujaifi. Mutahidun was joined this time by the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), which won 3 seats in the 2009 elections. Hadba ran on an anti-Iraqi Kurdish platform in 2009, and this allowed it to be the dominant force. Nujaifi was the highest vote-getting candidate in the 2009 provincial elections when he garnered over 262,539 votes.  This approach changed when Hadba initiated a policy of rapprochement with the Iraqi Kurds in 2012. That policy resulted in allocating positions to the Iraqi Kurds, but kept Nujaifi in office as governor and allowed his continued influence in provincial affairs. Mutahidun and the Nujaifi brothers in particular have been supportive of the anti-government protests. Mutahidun criticizedthe security forces and demanded an investigation of the attack when a protester was killed in clashes with security forces in Mosul. In general, the Nujaifi brothers have constituted a serious countervailing force to Maliki and his Iraqi Sunni allies over the last year.    
The Brotherhood and Coexistence List: The List is an Iraqi Kurdish coalition that includes8 major Iraqi Kurdish parties. The two main components of the coalition are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Iraqi Kurds had 12 seats in Ninewa’s council after the 2009 elections. It is very likely that the KDP will gain more seats than the PUK in Ninewa. KDP-controlled areas in Iraqi Kurdistan border Ninewa province and, since 2003, the KDP has been able to prove that it is more dominant on the ground in the province.  

The Unified Ninewa: The coalitionis headed by the leader of the tribal Shamar confederation, Abdallah al-Yawer. The coalition has 9 seats and is competing on anti-Iraqi Kurdish platform. Al-Yawer’s tribal background and influence will also likely work to his advantage.   

Loyalty to Ninewa: The coalition is headedby former governor of Ninewa, Ghanim al-Baso. The coalition has 9 groups including Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Dialog Front (INDF) and the National Movement for Reform and Development (Solution or Halin Arabic), which is headed by Member of Parliament Jamal al-Karbuli. This group is perceivedto receive the support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It was reportedly the group that requesteda delay in provincial elections in Ninewa in March 2013.     

The Stakes in Ninewa      

Although ongoing visible security problems in Ninewa are a matter of public concern, the candidates generally avoided discussion of this issue in the run up to elections. Nujaifi in particular, who has held power for the past four years, would have been most damaged by the topic. Instead, national issues such as perceived Sunni marginalization and mistreatment by Maliki’s government were dominant in run up to the elections.

At the same time, local issues were important.  General anti-Kurdish sentiments remain high in Ninewa, and al-Nujaifi may be punished in these elections for his recent outreach to the Iraqi Kurds. Gains at his expense may be made by al-Yawer’s group, Unified Ninewa, which criticized the Nujiafis for their Kurdish overtures and has been campaigningon that platform. Al-Yawer has also criticized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. The issue of holding a census that would clearly reveal the demographic breakdown of Iraq is highly contentious, particularly in Ninewa where the status of some areas remains in dispute. Al-Yawer seized on this point and stated his rejection of “conducting any census in light of the Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish security forces] occupation of Ninewa’s land.” 

For the Iraqi Kurds, the Ninewa elections are very important. They underperformed in Salah ad-Din and Diyala, and a better performance in Ninewa will help them reassert claim over the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) in the province as they have donein the past. Critically, influence in Ninewa’s local government gives the Iraqi Kurds leverage with regards to disputed oil fields that lie within Ninewa’s borders but have been grantedto foreign oil companies for exploration by the Kurdistan Regional Government. 

Electoral Politics in Anbar

There are 30 seats slated for election in Anbar province. There were 17 political groups competing for the seats, and they fielded a total of 548 candidates. Among the 17 coalitions, four are likely to be the most competitive. 

Mutahidun (The United): As in Ninewa, Mutahidun is a major force in Anbar. It includes in its ranks former finance minister Rafia al-Issawi’s Future Gathering and tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha’s Awakening (Sahwa) Conference in addition to the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). Given that the Nujaifis are not from Anbar, these political forces are necessary to garner more votes. In Anbar, tribal dynamics and locale trump politics and ideology, which, by contrast, are more prominent in Ninewa. Combined, these groups won 14 seats in the 2009 elections.

Aabirun: Aabirun is another coalition that is poised towin seats. It is led by incumbent governor Mohammed Qassim al-Fahdawi and includes nine groups. The coalition’s strength derives from Fahdawi’s tenure as governor, although Aabirun is perceived to be close to Maliki. This may cost the coalition votes during this round of elections.   

Arab Iraqiyya: Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq is competingunder the Arab Iraqiyya coalition which includes six groups. As in Ninewa, al-Karbuli’s Hal movement is part of the coalition. Both groups have nine seats in the incumbent council. Despite incumbency, Arab Iraqiyya may lose votes in this election on account of Mutlaq’s decreased popularity in Anbar.    

United National Iraqi Alliance: Another player is the Unified National Iraqi Alliance which is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and includes19 groups. It had won two seats in the 2009 elections.[i] The elections will indicate Allawi’s political longevity among Iraqi Sunnis.

 The Conduct and Significance of the Elections 

The voter turnoutfor elections in Ninewa was 37.5%, which was a significant decline from the 60% recorded in the 2009 provincial elections. Anbar, meanwhile, registered a turnout of 50%, which is a 9% increase from the 2009 provincial elections. The decline in turnout Ninewa may be attributed to voter fatigue, as this is the sixth electoral process in Iraq since 2005. Voter enthusiasm tends to decline with every elections cycle. Furthermore, local elections witness lower turnouts compared to national elections. Security procedures may have also hampered voters from heading to polling stations. Regardless of the reason, Ninewa’s voter turnout presented a strong indicator of Iraqi Sunnis refraining from politics.  

This is a worrisome indicator. AQI resurgence, JRTN mobilization, and sectarian policies by Maliki have the potential to transform political discontent into armed opposition. This combination will allow JRTN in particular to find more sympathy from the population and therefore to recruit effectively. In addition, AQI has encouraged Iraqi Sunnis to boycott elections as a means to achieve their objectives. On the eve of the elections, AQI issued a statement that called on the people of Ninewa and Anbar not to participate in the elections. To that end, AQI is also likely behind recent attacks on local candidates including the June 18attack on the leader of a pro-Maliki coalition. Notably, AQI does not seem to have been successful in carrying out large scale attacks to disrupt the elections. It is possible that increased security measures including vehicular travelbans in both provinceswere effective in preventing most violence. A post-election suicide bomb attackon a vote counting center in Ramadi, however, demonstrated the speed with which security can deteriorate, as the attack reportedly targeted a highly fortified area. 

Violence in this charged environment will likely continue. The rhetoric leading up to the elections was more sectarian than that which preceded the April 20 elections. This is partly a reflection of electoral strategy to mobilize voters and also in part due to rising sectarianism in Iraq. Nonetheless, the election results will be crucial for the Iraqi Sunnis. From 2003 until 2009, Anbar was the political capital of the Iraqi Sunnis. That changed after the 2009 elections when the Nujaifi brothers emerged as a formidable power. Therefore, the results achieved by the Nujaifi brothers will be an important gauge of their influence before the 2014 national elections. 

Mutahidun portrayed the elections as the last possible opportunity for the Iraqi Sunnis to have their voices heard. In a video postedon its Facebook page, Mutahidun’s spokesperson, Thafir al-Ani, called on the people of Ninewa and Anbar to vote in order to “regain” their dignity. Al-Ani called on them to see it as an opportunity to end marginalization. Al-Ani also warned the Iraqi Sunnis that boycotting the elections will make them wait “for one thousand Batat and one thousand Mokhtar Army.” Al-Ani’s reference is to the Iraqi Shi’a militia, the Mokhtar Army, which was formed in February 2013 by Wathiq al-Batat. The formation of the Mokhtar Army and the remobilization of the Iraqi Shi’a militias have represented a rallying point for the Iraqi Sunnis. 

Equally important is the composition of the local governments after the results are announced. In 2009, the Hadba Gathering formed a government in Ninewa without the Iraqi Kurds. This led to the boycottof the provincial governments by the Iraqi Kurds and produced another layer of ethnic tensions. A similar scenario this time around will be a boon for AQI and JRTN, whose modus operandi is exploiting ethno-sectarian tensions. If the results show that Ninewa voters punished Hadba for warming up to the Iraqi Kurds, the Nujaifis may recalculate their alliances and form a government without the Iraqi Kurds. In sum, the Nujaifi’s ambition to be leaders of the Iraqi Sunnis is largely dependent on these elections results.   

For Anbar, acceptance of the results by protest leaders will be an indicator of the future of the protest movement. Reports from the ground suggest that some protest leaders took part in the elections and preachers in the pre-election Friday urgedvoters to participate. Nonetheless, any perception that the results were rigged in favor of Maliki-allies will likely trigger violent reactions and the return of massive protest. 

As IHEC prepares to announce the results on June 25, Maliki’s strategy to ally himself with Iraqi Sunni figures like al-Mutlaq and Karbuli in addition to the new Sahwa leader, Wisam al-Hardan will be put to test. For Maliki, a weakened Nujaifi powerbase will represent a significant step as he gears up for the 2014 elections. Crucially, the results and the performance of his allies will indicate to Maliki his future approach to the protests and his relations with the Iraqi Sunnis.      
Ahmed Aliis an Iraq research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.