Iraq Election: Secular and Islamist Parties

Split Between Secular and Islamist Parties Is Seen in Election (NYT)

Iraqi voters began streaming to the polls Thursday morning in nationwide elections as Iraqi leaders predicted that the vote would split almost evenly between secular and Islamist parties and usher in lengthy political maneuvering. The elections, which are expected to draw as many as 10 million Iraqis to the polls, will be the last formal milestone in the American-backed political process that was devised to foster a democratic government. The elections are being seen by Iraqi and American leaders as the definitive test of the Bush administration’s assumption that a free vote is the best means for reconciling Iraq’s vastly polarized ethnic and sectarian groups and defeating the Sunni Arab insurgency that is threatening to break the country apart.

The voting itself is expected to reveal a fissure of another sort, between a Shiite coalition of religious parties on one side and a mostly secular array of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties on the other. Between them are profound differences over the direction of the country and the nature of the Iraqi state, not just over how heavily it should influenced by Islam but also over the powers of the central government and the autonomy granted to local regions. Implicit in those questions, for many Iraqis, is whether the country can survive at all.

Isn’t that true by definition? I mean, what exactly makes a religious party a religious party and a secular party, secular?

The cleric-led Shiite coalition is expected to get the largest number of votes but to fall short of capturing enough seats to enable Adel Abdul Mahdi, the group’s probable nominee for prime minister, to form a government. The Shiite coalition won a slim majority in the January elections, choosing Ibrahim Jafaari as prime minister, but the expected participation of the Sunni Arabs makes it unlikely that the Shiite bloc will capture a majority this time.

The Shiite coalition, if it comes to power, is dedicated to giving the Iraqi state a decidedly Islamic cast; in southern Iraq, parties in the Shiite coalition in control of local governments have imposed strict limits on personal behavior, including those governing women’s dress and the sale of alcohol. A Shiite-dominated government is viewed with some alarm by American officials here, in part because of the Shiite leaders’ close ties to the theocratic government in Iran and also for the anger it would be likely to incite among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Sunni Arab leaders have complained bitterly that the Shiite-led government of Mr. Jafaari has waged a campaign of persecution against them. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the Shiite-dominated security services have engaged in widespread abductions, killings and torture of Sunni civilians.

Arrayed against the Shiite bloc is likely to be a largely secular group of parties led by Ayad Allawi, the former Baathist and secular Shiite who has attracted a large following of Sunni Arabs. Along with the Sunni Arabs, Mr. Allawi is hoping to bring in the two major Kurdish parties. A government under the leadership of Mr. Allawi, who is regarded as the American favorite, would steer a markedly different course from one led by the Shiite coalition. The Iraqis gathered around Mr. Allawi, including the Sunni and Kurdish leaders, are largely secular, and they view Iran with great suspicion. Yet even Mr. Allawi’s coalition, if it comes together at all, is not expected to gain an absolute majority, at least not initially.

The deadlock sets the stage for a lengthy period of intense political bargaining, as the two major blocs try to secure the necessary allies to form a government. Some Iraqi political leaders predict it will take weeks, or even months, for such a government to emerge. After the January elections, under a similar system, when the Shiite coalition captured a slim majority in the interim parliament, the new government did not take power until April. “We will need much more time to negotiate things,” said Mr. Mahdi, the Shiite coalition’s likely nominee as prime minister. “Instead of negotiating between two slates, as we did in January, there will be negotiations between three and even more.”

For the immediate future, the biggest question is whether the Shiite coalition – a diverse gathering of 18 conservative parties – can hang together after the election, or whether it will be picked apart by Mr. Allawi, or Ahmad Chalabi, another secular Shiite politician, who led his own slate of candidates. At the moment, the two weak spots in the coalition appear to be the Islamic Fadhela Party, whose leaders have threatened to break ranks, and the Sadr Movement, which is associated with Moktada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric who led anti-American uprisings last year. It is not clear with whom those leaders would join, but they could conceivably move toward Mr. Chalabi or, less likely, Mr. Allawi. Iraqi leaders like Mr. Allawi and Mr. Chalabi are not shy about saying they intend to break up the Shiite coalition after the election. “There are some who say they are not in it for the long haul with their slate and that they would consider other positions,” Mr. Allawi said. For their part, the leaders of the Shiite coalition insist that for all the pressure on the alliance to break up, they will, in the end, stick together. “You remember last time, people said it wouldn’t last,” Mr. Mahdi said. “It is by interest, not by orders. Once people feel it is not in their interest, they will leave.”

The formation of the next Iraqi government is expected to be further delayed by the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote for the election of a “presidential council” of a president and two vice presidents that will nominate a prime minister for parliamentary approval. In practice, that means that any Iraqi leader hoping to form a government will effectively need a supermajority. One possibility, if no Iraqi leader can cobble together enough votes, is a “national unity” government consisting of the leaders of all the major parties. Such an outcome is unlikely and it is not preferred by many Iraqi leaders, who fear that such a government would be too fractious to carry out decisive action.

Such is the way with proportional representation schemes. The framers of this constitution clearly needed more input from–or to better heed–political scientists. If they insisted on proportional representation, which leads to a ridiculous number of political parties and constant jostling to put together and maintain a governing coalition, then they might have borrowed the double ballot system from France. Under that scheme, there is an election wherein people can vote for their little fractious party followed, if none win a majority, with a runoff between the two largest vote getters. That creates, in effect, a pre-election coalition that is much more stable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    Brought to you by the same guy who ran the story about tanker trucks full of ballots…

    This guy is just tryin’ too hard.

  2. David C says:

    I think it’s a glaring, telling oversight that the article doesn’t even *mention* the position of Sistani, the religious leader many Shiites actually respect and admire and listen to.

    His position, which seems (on its face, at least) to undercut the handwringing about “religious” parties, is that he supports the elections, but doesn’t endorse any particular slate, and generally thinks religion and politics should be separate!

    Granted, this has a different meaning in the Iraqi context than “separation of church and state” in the modern American or European context, but it’s still rather striking to me. Of course, it’s also inconveniently inconsistent with Filkins’ conclusions, so you don’t hear about it.