Prime Minister of Shiastan

I don’t generally write about elections in advance, since whatever you say is bound to be dated (and more than likely wrong) once the votes are counted.  But the Iraq parliamentary election April 30 is important enough to merit some comment.  And it is far enough in advance that I can write off any mistakes to things that occurred after the post.

The current expectation is that Prime Minister Maliki will do well in his campaign for a third mandate.  He may not match the 90 seats his State of Law got in 2010, but the prevailing consensus of both his supporters and opponents is that 80-90 is well within reach.  A plurality seems assured.  This is a bit surprising, given the challenge to his rule Sunnis have been mounting in Anbar and Ninewa, where Al Qaeda has taken over substantial areas.  But Maliki’s belligerent stance towards the Sunni gives him credibility with Shia, who are fed up with extremist Sunni attacks and will want to express their view at the polls.  Even 60-70 seats would put Maliki in the driver’s seat after the election, because changes in the electoral law (provincial electoral districts and open lists) have ensured that smaller parties have a good chance of doing better than in the past, thus fragmenting the opposition.  The Iraqiyya list that beat him last time by two votes has been evaporating.

Some think government formation might take a long time, as it did last time around.  That is certainly a possibility, but if Maliki gets the largest number of seats for his own State of Law and manages to hold the Shia alliance together he can hope to shortcircuit the process by coopting smaller parties and independents as well as taking on board some more moderate Sunnis.  The Kurdish parties would then have no choice but to hop on board, before the train leaves the station.

What might upset Maliki’s apple cart?   Two things:  Iran and Najaf.   Both want the Shia united.  But Tehran has become concerned that Maliki is getting too strong.  Iran has suffered in the past from a strong executive in Iraq and is therefore not wedded to Maliki.  Najaf, that is the marjariya (Shia religious authorities) are thought not to be keen on Maliki either, as he has failed to deliver services to the Shia poor, or most others for that matter.  If either Najaf or Iran decides that the Maliki cannot unite the Shia block, they might defenestrate him and manage it with someone else.  Maliki himself last time around set a precedent by forming a government without having the largest number of seats (he assembled his coalition post-election).

That however is unlikely.  Maliki, who has proven himself a master at political maneuver, will more likely keep the Shia united, pick off some Sunnis and present the Kurds with a virtual fait accompli.

The trouble is government formation in this fashion might be the end of Iraq.  The Kurds, who are resentful of Maliki’s failure to keep promises they say he made last time around, might well take the occasion to conduct a referendum on the status of Kurdistan, especially if there is no settlement of their oil disputes with Baghdad.  Independence would pass overwhelmingly.  If that happens, the Sunnis will not be sticking around:  there would be a giant uprising in Anbar, Saladin and Ninewa.  Maliki would react by trying to crack down on both Kurds and Sunnis, but there is no reason to believe the Iraqi security forces would be able or even willing.  A big election victory for Maliki would thus become Pyrrhic.  He would become prime minister of Shiastan.

Even if Iraq does not break up as a result of a third Maliki mandate, the sectarian and ethnic strains will be dramatic.  Maliki’s inclinations are to centralize power.  That is precisely the wrong direction to go in if something like democracy is to survive in Iraq.

A more favorable outcome would require a cross-sectarian, interethnic alliance of major Shia blocs (other than State of Law) with Sunnis and Kurds, backing an alternative to Maliki.  This is unlikely, since it would require a quick and definitive choice of a speaker of parliament, president and prime minister, one of each flavor, then a quick distribution of ministerial slots, with Maliki and his plurality trying to block the effort at every turn.  Unlike political leaders in more mature democracies, he cannot expect a quiet retirement, or a turn in opposition.  He has chased several Sunni leaders out of power and into Kurdistan, where people told me last week they would be happy to welcome Maliki as well.  From his perspective, that’s not an attractive proposition.

Sarah Chayes writes that the election in Afghanistan today may bring neither the stability nor the transition the West wants.  I fear much the same might be said about Iraq.  Both countries are in need of national dialogue and reconciliation.  But in Iraq the election definitely does matter, while in Afghanistan Sarah suggests that will not be the case.

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