Friday, June 28, 2013

Provincial Election Outcomes: The Political Fragmentation of Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'a

Iraqi Arab Sunni fragmentation and low voter turnout for Ninewa provincial elections produced a victory for Iraqi Kurds. The decrease in representation by Mutahidun in the Nujaifi’s home province calls into question the direction of Sunni political leadership ahead of 2014 elections. Government formation in Diyala and Baghdad indicate that the political future of Iraqi Sunni will increasingly rely upon Iraqi Shi’a political antagonism to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

On June 26, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced the final results of the June 20 Ninewa and Anbar provincial elections. In Ninewa, the results could electorally revive the Iraqi Kurds and provide them with leverage in a strategic province. Iraqi Kurdish gains came as a result of the fragmentation in the Iraqi Arab vote. The results also present a dilemma to incumbent governor Atheel al-Nujaifi as his Kurdish opening appears to have backfired against his electoral bloc, Mutahidun. In Anbar, Mutahidun fared well against groups that have ties to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but these Maliki-affiliated groups also posted strong returns. Finally, the Sadrist’s leading role in forming governments in Diyala and Baghdad with Iraqi Sunnis produced results that point to the possible alliance-building dynamic ahead of 2014 elections.   

Ninewa and Anbar Results 

Twenty eight political groups competedfor Ninewa’s 39 provincial council seats, and 14 groups  securedseats in last week’s election. The Iraqi Kurdish coalition, the Brotherhood and Coexistence List, won 11 seats which translated to the loss of one seat from the 2009 elections for the Iraqi Kurds. Mutahidun (the United), which included Ninewa governor Atheel al-Nujaifi’s group, the Hadba Gathering, came in second, garnering 8 seats. Accordingto the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) Irshad al-Salhi, 4 of those seats were won by its candidates. Overall, this is a decline for Hadba which had won19 seats in 2009. Loyalty to Ninewa Alliance (LNA), which is headedby former Ninewa governor, Ghanim al-Baso, won 4 seats. The Unified Ninewa Alliance (UNA), which is backedby tribal leader Abdallah al-Yawer, won 3 seats. The Iraq Construction and Justice Gathering (ICJG), headedby incumbent Ninewa deputy provincial council head, Dildar Zebari, won 3 seats. The remaining 10 seats were won by 9 other groups with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s, Unified National Iraqi Alliance (UNIA), being the most prominent among them, having won2 seats.       

These results are significant for several reasons. First, voter turnout in Ninewa was low, estimated at 37.5-38%. Voter turnout in 2009 had been 60%, and the precipitous decline raises concerns about future Iraqi Sunni Arab political participation especially given the possibilityof an armed movement. The low turnout, combined with the relative electoral success of the Iraqi Kurdish coalition and the decline of Mutahidun, mayindicate that Iraqi Kurdish turnout may have been higher than that of Iraqi Arabs. It may also indicate that the presence of multiple Iraqi Arab groups splintered the Iraqi Arab vote in favor of the Iraqi Kurds. It may also be explained by al-Nujaifi’s 2012 rapprochement with the Iraqi Kurds, which may have backfiredagainst him. The groups that are critical of the Iraqi Kurds, such as LNA, UNA, and ICJG, won a combined 10 seats, suggesting that al-Nujaifi lost Arab Sunni votes to them over the Kurdish issue. The 11 seats won by the Iraqi Kurds will provide them with increased leverage as the government formation process begins. This may elevate anti-Kurdish sentiments among the Arab Sunni in Ninewa. Likewise, Mutahidun’s poor performance in the Nujaifis’ home province represents a setback to Mutahidun, and to al-Nujaifi in particular.

Security events are also tied to the turnout rate in Ninewa. Violent actors wishing to deter popular participation in elections were expected to engage in attacks prior to June 20. According to media reporting, between June 10-20 there were a total of 34 violent incidents in the greater Mosul area that involved either Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED). Notable attacks include the June 20 suicide bombing attack in the Hadhar district, south of Mosul, that killed tribal sheikh Younis al-Ramah. Al-Ramah was head of the Unified Iraq political group and was very likely targeted due to his political role and his reported ties to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Other attacks may have resonated with the voting population and deterred them from voting, including a wave of VBIED attacks on June 10 which included five VBIEDs in the greater Mosul area. Governor Nujaifi also survived twoassassination attempts that took place in early June and on June 13. Given the time proximity to the elections, these attacks likely kept voters away from the voting centers. A degraded security environment undermines incumbent parties, and therefore attacks may have also affected al-Nujaifi negatively.             

Anbar’s results also presented surprises. Seventeen political groups competedfor 30 seats. Mutahidun was able to securethe highest number of seats, winning 8, while incumbent governor Qassim al-Fahdawi’s alliance, Aabirun won only 5 seats. It was followed by Arab Iraqiyya, the strongest components of which are Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi Front for National Dialogue and Jamal al-Karbuli’s Hal movement. Arab Iraqiyya won4 seats. Meanwhile, Allawi’s UNIA won3 seats. Finally, the Anbar-based Anbar National Alliance garnered3 seats. 

The Anbar results show that figures close to the anti-government protest movement are still electorally viable despite the shrinkingprotest movement in the province. This primarily concerns Mutahidun, which includes in its ranks former finance minister Rafia al-Issawi, whose targeting by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki triggered the movement. At the same, it seems that Maliki’s policy to work with some allies in Anbar including governor Fahdawi, Mutlaq, and Karbuli is not entirely detrimental to them. Groups supported by these figures won 9 seats altogether. It is plausible from the results, however, that the Fahdawi, Mutlaq, and Karbuli groups could be shut out of government with an alliance formed by the other groups. 

The unique case of government-formation in Baghdad and Diyala 

The results in Ninewa and Anbar present a picture of intra-sect and ethno-sectarian political competition in Iraq. Government-formation in Baghdad and Diyala, on the other hand, opens the possibility of cross-sectarian cooperation. In both provinces, an Iraqi-Shi‘a/Iraqi Sunni alignment produced the governments. 

In Baghdad, the government was officiallyformed on June 15. An alliance was formed between the Iraqi Shi‘a groups comprising the Sadrists (11 seats out of 58), the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which won 6 seats, and Mutahidun, which occupies 6 seats. Other groups in the council joined them and composed a bloc to form the government named“the Alliance for Baghdad.” Accordingly, Sadrist member of the Council of Representatives (CoR), Ali al-Tamimi, was elected governor, while Riyadh al-Adhadh, who is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) and ran with Mutahidun, was elected chairman of the provincial council. The other senior positions in Baghdad’s government were allocated to the other groups. The provincial council session that resulted in forming the government was boycotted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), which won 20 seats in Baghdad. The configuration of the new Baghdad government meant that the SLA was excluded from the senior positions. This is a complete reversal for the SLA which had controlledthe incumbent council. As a result of his assumption of office, al-Tamimi had to resign from his parliamentary seat. Al-Adhadh was deputy council chairman in the previous council and was arrestedin 2012 over terrorism charges and released after 10 months in custody. It will be important to watch whether his case is revived as part of a political retribution by the SLA. 

In Diyala, the Sadrists, who won 3 seats out of 29; Iraqiyat Diyala, which won 10 seats, including elements from Mutahidun; and the Iraqi Kurds formedthe government. This resulted in the June 19 reelection of incumbent governor Omar al-Hamiri from the IIP, and the election of Sadrist member of the council Mohammed Jawad Kadhim as chairman. Iraqi Kurdish council member Karim Mohammed Ali was elected as first deputy governor. Unlike Baghdad, the Sadrists in Diyala were the only Iraqi Shi‘a component to ally with the Iraqi Sunnis to form the government. The other Iraqi Shi‘a parties boycottedthe session that voted on the government. The major Iraqi Shi‘a parties participatedin the Diyala elections under the Diyala National Coalition (DNC) and won12 seats in the council, constituting a collective plurality. The formation of the DNC was intendedto signify Iraqi Shi‘a solidarity in Diyala, a province that was a major contest during Iraq’s civil war in 2006-2007. Therefore, the Sadrist decision broke the unity of Iraqi Shi‘a groups in Diyala and closed the other Shi‘a groups out of the government. For the Sadrists, leveraging three seats to secure the second important position in the provincial government is a major gain. It is also another indication of Sadrist strategy to gain leverage in light if the escalating intra-Shi‘a rivalry lately observedin Baghdad.  

These developments generated protests in Diyala before and after the election of Hamiri. On his election day, June 19, a protest took place that condemned Hamiri’s candidacy. A tribal sheikh who participated in the protest describedHamiri as “sectarian” and demanded the nomination of another candidate. On June 23, hundreds protestedin Diyala’s capital, Baqubah, and in Khanaqin and viewed the government-formation as “marginalization” of the DNC. Notably, an Iraqi Kurdish council memberindicated that newly-elected deputy governor Ali acted in a personal capacity by joining the government. This may indicate intra-Iraqi Kurdish fractures. 

Politically, the Sadrists came under attack by other Iraqi Shi‘a parties. SLA CoR member, Ali al-Shalah statedthat the Sadrists offered the governor position to Hamiri in order to receive Mutahidun’s vote for Baghdad’s governorship in return. Al-Shalah added that the new government led to the “absence of a whole component,” a reference to the Iraqi Shi‘a. ISCI on the other hand calledwhat happened in Diyala a “major strategic error” and called for reconsidering the government-formation.        


The announcement of the Ninewa and Anbar election results signals the beginning of government-formation in both provinces. In Ninewa, the Iraqi Kurds are currently rejuvenated by the outcome. Mohsen Saadun, a senior Iraqi Kurdish politician, indicatedthe Iraqi Kurds’ willingness to work with the all groups to form a government. Although he specified that the groups have to “believe in the constitution and the federal system.” This is a clear swipe at the groups that hold anti-Kurdish views in the province. The current Iraqi Kurdish advantage favors al-Nujaifi, but also places him in a difficult spot with Arab Sunni. If he is reelected in Ninewa as a result of only Iraqi Kurdish backing, he will not maintain the same political maneuverability and will be perceived as weak governor. This potential dynamic will likely limit him and his brother, speaker of the CoR Osama al-Nujaifi, as they gear up for the 2014 national elections. 

In Anbar, coalition-building to form the government has begun. On June 28, Mutahidun and Arab Iraqiyya formedan alliance to form a government. This alliance has a reasonable chance of success because the groups combine to 12 seats and therefore only need four more seats to obtain the majority needed to form a government. It is unclear how they will secure these votes, but this uncertainty increases the potential leverage of the smaller political groups. Arab Iraqiyya includes Jamal al-Karbuli’s Hal movement; because Karbuli had acted as one of Maliki’s Iraqi Sunni allies, this is a significant development for politics in Anbar. 

The outcome of elections in Ninewa and Anbar should be viewed on balance with the outcome of government formation in Baghdad and Diyala. In Baghdad, parties clearly wanted to isolate Maliki and the SLA, which allowed Sunni parties greater political representation. Diyala’s government did also, and as a result, the provincial government will continue to face challenges and questions of legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqi Shi‘a, as the Sadrists are their only representation in that body.   

For Iraqi Sunnis, given great concern about the political future of this community, the results could have been much worse. They successfully avoided being sidelined in Baghdad and Diyala, where cross-sectarian cooperation in government formation is a positive result. However, fragmentation of Sunni parties demonstrates that there is still no consensus on the political leadership of the Sunni community. Iraqi Kurds benefitted from the fragmentation of Iraqi Sunni parties in Ninewa, positioning them as possible king-makers in government formation. For the Iraqi Shi‘a, disunity means a possible greater role for Iranian influence in the 2014 elections. Anti-Maliki forces saw the opportunity to sideline Maliki in Baghdad as a first electoral challenge to him as the leader of the Iraqi Shi‘a community. For all these groups, the conclusion of the provincial elections is only the prelude to the all-important 2014 elections.   

 Ahmed Ali is an Iraq Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.