TSG IntelBrief: Iraq’s Elections: Violence, Kurdistan, and Regional Unrest
April 29, 2014

Iraq’s Elections: Violence, Kurdistan, and Regional Unrest

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law slate is running against weak and divided opposition, with few clear challengers for re-election to a third term
 
• Al-Maliki has benefitted significantly from projecting an image of strength in facing down a determined insurrection by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria as well as Kurdish demands for economic independence
 
• In Iraq’s interest is an election relatively free of violence, and one in which the parties can quickly form an inclusive government that addresses the rampant violence in Anbar Province.  

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Context of the Election

Iraqi voters will go to the polls on April 30 for the third national elections for the 328 seat Council of Representatives (COR, or Parliament). The March 2010 election produced a close result in which a mostly Sunni Arab slate won two more seats than its next closest competitor—al-Maliki’s Shi’a State of Law coalition. Eight months of political deadlock followed the election, but ultimately, al-Maliki was reinstalled as Prime Minister after other Shi’a blocs gave him their backing.

The 2014 election will be the first post-Saddam national elections to take place without US combat troops in the country. The vote will occur despite a substantial insurrection still underway in the Sunni Arab-dominated province of Anbar, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and joined by some Sunni tribal fighters and former allies of the US known as the Sons of Iraq or Awakening movement. For three months, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have failed to dislodge the insurgents from the city of Fallujah. In mid-April the government closed the main prison at Abu Ghraib amid fears that the prison would be overrun by nearby insurgents.

Al-Maliki is also at odds with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which seeks to export its own oil to Turkey, separately from the Iraqi national export system. Because of the dispute, al-Maliki has withheld payments to the KRG. The rift has stalled approval of the 2014 national budget and has led to threats by Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, that the KRG might eventually seek outright independence.  

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Major Factions and the Election Competition

Despite the unrest plaguing Iraq, al-Maliki’s Shi’a constituents continue to see him as a strong figure who is standing up to Sunnis and Kurds. As undisputed leader, al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition has remained relatively intact since the March 2010 national elections. It is supported by much of the Shi’a community, which has tended to back the use of force to suppress the Sunni insurrection and has supported al-Maliki’s sidelining of senior Sunni political leaders. His supporters have also cheered his hardline response to KRG’s insistence on exporting oil independently.

In the 2010 election, two rival Shi’a factions, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the faction of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, united against al-Maliki in the Iraqi National Alliance slate. In the election on Wednesday, these parties are running separately, though they will undoubtedly work together after the election to ensure that the next prime minister remains Shi’a Muslim. Neither of these parties has a leader with the same broad support that al-Maliki enjoys, making it unlikely that he will face any major challenge for another term. Al-Sadr has a strong following among poorer Shi’a, but he is not seen as a governmental administrator, and in February 2014 he formally resigned from politics. The leader of ISCI, Ammar al-Hakim, is also a cleric and not viewed as a potential prime minister, even were ISCI to do well in the election.

Unlike in the 2010 election, the Sunnis are divided. In that election they rallied to the mostly secular al-Iraqiya coalition of former Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi, and won two more seats than did State of Law. In 2014, al-Iraqiya split into three different blocs: al-Allawi’s al-Wataniya, COR speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s al-Mutahidin, and the Arabiya constituency of deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutaq. Further complicating the election for Sunnis in Anbar—the largest Sunni populated province—is violent ISIS opposition to the election process and its negative impact on voter turnout.

The main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have run in a united bloc in past elections. However, as a result of the September 2013 Kurdistan National Assembly elections, Gorran, a relatively new party, has emerged as a key actor. It won more seats in the September 2013 election for the Kurdish Parliament than did PUK, from which Gorran broke away. A fracturing of the Kurdish vote in the Iraq national election threatens to reduce Kurdish leverage in the post-election government formation process.  

The PUK also has been hurt by the incapacity of Talabani, who has been recovering in Germany from a 2012 stroke and is unlikely to continue as president after this election. This leaves open the possibility that the Sunni Arabs might try to engineer one of their own as president, and instead cede COR speakership to a Kurdish official.    

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The Post-Election Period

With al-Maliki’s opponents divided, strong obstacles do not appear to threaten his third term as prime minister. Al-Maliki also appears to have the strong backing of Tehran to continue as Prime Minister.

Iran’s primary goal is to keep Iraqi Shi’a broadly united and deny the position of prime minister to a Sunni Arab or to anyone critical of Iran and its policies. Perhaps as a symbol of this close relationship, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari will be visiting Iran on election day.  

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Forecast:

• The process of forming a government will be delayed several months due to disputes over senior positions and Kurdish demands for more economic autonomy
 
• After obtaining a third term, al-Maliki will likely order the ISF to take stronger action to quell the Sunni insurrection and he is unlikely to give in to Kurdish demands to export high volumes of oil independently
 
• The election will enable the US to move forward with enhanced cooperation with the Maliki government, to address the threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and the region.

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