Iraq’s 2018 Parliamentary Elections and the Jockeying to Form a New Government: Domestic Prospects and Regional Ramifications

Spotlight By Dr. Naim Joseph Salem*

Iraq’s 2018 Parliamentary Elections and the Jockeying to Form a New Government: Domestic Prospects and Regional Ramifications

It was sectarianism which was implanted by the Americans in Iraq – after it had been prohibited under the Baath regime which was largely secular – and sectarianism and ethnic regionalism were intentionally encouraged for the purpose of facilitating long-term control over the country by way of “divide and conquer”.

Israel a Jewish and Democratic State Fifteen years following the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in April 2003, Iraq remains a shattered state as a consequence of the ongoing occupation and the ensuing widespread terror which has racked the country and devastated it humanly and economically. The Americans who occupied Iraq created a political system predicated on sectarian and ethnic distribution of political power – unlike the United States itself, (which is much more diverse ethnically and religiously than Iraq), yet political and bureaucratic posts in it are open to all citizens. One example on that is President Barak Obama whose ethnic black minority constitutes only 12 percent of the population, but that did not preclude him from becoming President and the Commander in-Chief. However, in Iraq the major political posts following occupation were allocated along ethnic lines: the post of prime minister is to be held by a Shiite, the president is to be a Kurd, and the speaker of parliament a Sunnite.

The Politics of Iraq: Before and After 2003

The politics of the post-2003 Iraq have been very much shaped by American occupation of the country. The occupation, which started with about 200,000 U.S. and other coalition troops in 2003, persists with some 7,500 American troops still stationed in Iraq (and about 2,500 additional U.S. troops currently occupying the northeastern part of neighboring Syria since 2015). Through wars, occupying armies generally bring with them their political value systems and laws and, failing that, their strategic and economic control. On the heels of WWII, the United States forced its political value system on Germany and Japan – a system which very much resembled the U.S. federal system, as reflected in: federalism, a primarily two-party system established in both Germany and Japan à la American model, and secularism, which separates politics from religion.

In the case of Iraq, however, it was sectarianism which was implanted by the Americans in Iraq – after it had been prohibited under the Baath regime which was largely secular – and sectarianism and ethnic regionalism were intentionally encouraged for the purpose of facilitating long-term control over the country by way of “divide and conquer”. Thus, in preparation for the war on Iraq in 2003, the Americans allied themselves primarily with Iraqi Shiite groups that had been exiled and based in Iran - such as the Badr Brigade led by Nuri al-Maliki; the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) led at the time by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim; and also with Kurdish ethnic groups in Northern Iraq who had been backed by the United States ever since the 1960s - namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led at the time by Mulla Mustapha Barzani; and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talbani.

Thus, the constitution which was formulated and adopted on October 15, 2005, under the tight occupation authority of U.S. “civilian” administrator over Iraq, Paul Bremer, replaced the Constitution of 1925, which was still in effect under Saddam Hussein until 2003. The federal system set by the 2005 Constitution – combined with sectarianism and regionalism-cum-pronounced separatist tendencies in the three Kurdish “autonomous” provinces in the North - which have had, since the early 1990s - their own separate military forces from the command and control of Baghdad – made Iraq, in effect, a confederal system with expanded decentralization. This type of expanded decentralization was not tolerated by the United States itself starting in 1861, when the Federal government in Washington waged a bloody and destructive four-year war on the Southern eleven Confederate states, 1861-1865, to bring them under the submission of Washington. And it ultimately did through the outright defeat and submission of the rebellious southern Confederate States.

Parliamentary Elections post 2003:

Since the American occupation of Iraq in April 2003, three parliamentary elections have been held. The first was in December 2005, shortly after the adoption of the constitution on October 15 of that year. The second took place five years later, in January 2010. And the third was scheduled, according to the constitution, five years hence, in 2015. Yet the swift invasion in the summer of 2014 by the terror group ISIS (with clear foreign support by the same countries that have set the series of multi-layered wars on the Arabs since 1990) of large areas of northern and western Iraq – including the province of Mosul and the city of Mosul, the third largest city in the country, in addition to two other provinces, Salaheddin and Al-Anbar – put the country on the brink of total collapse, particularly as the well-armed and foreign-supplied terror group reached the northern periphery of the capital Baghdad.

However, with the fall of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from power, as a consequence of his failure to foresee or yet to repel the invasion of ISIS and its swift control of Mosul (4-10 June 2014), a new parliamentary coalition was formed whereby President Fouad Ma`sum appointed Haidar al-Abadi (pro-American) to form a new government on August 11, 2014, which he subsequently did and undertook to coordinate the military plans between the army and the newly-formed Al-Hashd Al-Sha`bi militias, or the Popular Mobilization Forces, who are predominantly Shiite, to regain control of the areas invaded by ISIS. That bloody counter-military offensive lasted for three years until the summer of 2017, during which the Iraqi government liberated first Salaheddin, then Al-Anbar, and in the summer of 2017 all of the city of Mosul and most of the Mosul Province, with a border section of the province (in the area of Ba`shiqa some 60 kilometers inside Iraq) still under the direct occupation of the Turkish army till today (similar to areas in northern Syria that have been occupied by Turkey ((and others by the U.S. in the oil-rich Syrian regions of al-Raqqa, Hasaka, and Qamishli)) – all under the American and Turkish guises of fighting “terrorism”, mind you!!).

The widespread expansion of “islamist” terror groups and the total lawlessness that racked nearly one-third of the geography of Iraq – Anbar, Mosul, and Salaheddin – between 2014 and 2017, derailed the parliamentary elections for the unicameral legislature which were supposed to take place in 2015. Thus, eight months following the liberation of Mosul in the summer of 2017, new parliamentary elections were held on May 12, 2018, for the 329-member Parliament. The results of these elections thrust new groups to the forefront of parliamentary blocks/seats. Yet, upon the announcement of the results there were widespread accusations of cheating and corruption in the election process which led to a new manual vote recount. The results of that slow recount were ultimately ratified by the Iraqi Supreme Court on August 19. Yet the results did not much change the outcome of the first count, with one alteration: the Shiite Al-Fatah or Conquest Alliance, which brought together a collection of some 40 militias to liberate Northern and Western Iraq from ISIS, gained one parliament seat (their 47 deputies in the first count became 48 in the recount).

The 2018 Mandate:

Overall, the final 2018 parliamentary elections results for the major parties/coalitions came to be as follows, with the Shiite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr coming in the lead:

• Forward or “Sa'iroun” of al-Sadr: 54 seats (In the previous parliamentary elections al-Sadr had only 20 seats).

• Conquest Alliance “Al-Fath” or “Al-Hashed al-Sha`bi” (New), which was formed in 2014 to counter ISIS, and has been led by Hadi al-`Amiri (a pro-Iran Shiite): 48 seats.

• Victory Coalition “Al-Nasr” (New) , led by Prime Minister Haidar al-`Abadi, (Shiite): 42 seats

• State of Law Coalition “Dawlat al-Qanoun”, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (also pro-Iran Shiite): 25 seats (previously had 92 seats!, with a whopping loss of 67 seats compared with the previous election).

• Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Nechirvan Barzani (a Kurd): 25 seats.

• Iraqi National Accord, or National Coalition for short, led by Iyad `Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Ba`thist: 21 seats.

• National Wisdom Party, previously known as Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led now by `Ammar al-Hakim (a Shiite clergy): 19 seats.

• Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Kosrat Rasul `Ali: 18 seats

• Arab Decision Alliance, led by Osama al-Nujaifi (Sunni): 14 seats

• Anbar Is Our Identity, led by Jamal al-Karboli (Sunni): 6 seats

As we notice above, the Sunni parties/ leaders trailed at the bottom of the list of the major winners in the elections. This was the byproduct of three primary factors: One, the Arab Sunnis have come to constitute currently only around 20 percent of Iraq’s population of 38 million. Two, the ouster, immediately following the American invasion, of the Arab Baath Party and the Pan-Arabists from power, most of whose leaders were Sunni, and their primary power bases were in the Arab Sunni provinces of Iraq, further marginalized the Sunnis. Three, the military resistance against the American occupation developed primarily in the Sunni regions, and that resulted in the systematic military targeting of these regions by the American occupation forces along with their allies: the newly-formed Shiite-dominated government security apparatuses which were either trained by the Americans or by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which for its part has had long-held grudges against the Ba`thists of Iraq, even prior to the outbreak of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in September 1980.

Further yet, the particular targeting of the Sunni regions accentuated the popular disaffection and made the population in them a fertile ground for the spread of al-Qaida in western and northern Iraq, originally through the Jordanian Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi who came into the country from across the border in Jordan where he was jailed. That accentuation was made even worse with the latter spread of ISIS in the Sunni provinces, as of 2014, and the ensuing battles of recurrent bloody expansions and contractions of ISIS in these provinces, with the consequences being the utter massive devastation of the Sunni regions in Iraq – humanly, demographically, and economically. For example, the third largest city in Iraq, Mosul, in addition to many other predominantly Sunni cities and towns, particularly Ramadi and Fallujah, have all but been destroyed.

Analysis of the Recent Elections:

If we take a closer look at the results of the elections we find that no single party or coalition has achieved a decisive majority in the Parliament, and therefore all of the major and next-to-major political parties/groups find it necessary to coalesce with a combination of other winning entities in order to reach a parliamentary majority of a minimum half plus one of the total Parliament membership of 329, which is 165 deputies or more.

Apart from the major parties and coalitions highlighted above which achieved relatively high results, there were also hundreds of other candidates and scores of entities who competed in the elections. Among these relatively small entities or vote getters, a Kurdish politician’s movement, the Movement of Change, headed by Omar Said Ali, obtained 5 seats in the new parliament, two other entities achieved 4 seats each, six entities 3 seats each, eight entities 2 seats each, nine entities 1 seat each, and finally 2 seats for individual independent candidates.

Thus, the jockeying to form the new government through a minimal coalition of 165 deputies began in earnest after the Iraqi Supreme Court officially ratified the election results on August 19. There are three broad political orientations among the biggest parties/entities which scored comparatively high in the elections, but none by far could form a new government alone. The first is headed by Muqtada al-Sadr who came out with the biggest number of seats: 54. The second is headed by Hadi al-`Amiri (48 seats). And the third entity is that of current Prime Minister Haidar al-`Abadi (42 seats). While all the other entities fell regressively far behind, as indicated above.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s orientation/platform, as he highlighted it repeatedly during the elections, has been focused, domestically, on rooting out the rampant corruption that has plagued the country since occupation. He even reached out to secular forces, leftists, and even communists for cooperation. On the level of foreign policy, al-Sadr has been strongly opposed to foreign interference in Iraq, whether by the U.S., or Iran which had repeatedly in the past, since the American occupation, sought somehow to contain al-Sadr, and at the same time to strengthen other Shiite groups at his expense. In fact, Iran even obstructed his repeated attempts following 2003 to launch a military insurgency against American occupation in the context of its quid pro quo deals with the Americans to divide among themselves the influence in Iraq, while its other close Iraqi Shiite allies, such as Al-Hakims and Nuri al-Maliki, actively cooperated with the Americans and participated in the successive governments under occupation.

As to the “Fateh”, or Conquest Alliance, led by Hadi al-`Amiri, which came second in the elections with 48 seats, it is very close ideologically and organizationally to Iran. It is also close ideologically to former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Da`wa Party which gained 25 seats in the new parliament (compared with 92 seats in the previous parliament – a big retreat!).

Regarding the Victory Coalition of current Prime Minister Haidar al-`Abadi which came third with 42 seats, it was propelled into third place on the heels of the victory achieved against ISIS/Daesh under the leadership of Prime Minister `Abadi. In the same way that Al-Hashed al-Sha`bi, or Conquest Alliance, came out second with high election scores due to its key role in rolling back ISIS from northern and western Iraq, in coordination with the Iraqi army. Both Al-Fateh and the Victory parties/coalition did not exist in the previous parliament.

Because no single parliamentary entity can form a government by itself, in light of the results, the attempts to form broad parliamentary coalitions are a must. The jockeying by various entities to form a broad governing coalition, which began in earnest after the Iraqi Supreme Court ratified the election results on August 19, has not yet produced any agreement as of today (August 25). Hence, as the forthcoming governmental coalition is yet to be ironed out or yet to be declared, some important factors may be highlighted which shall shape this coalition and thereby the new government:

One, Muqtada al-Sadr is expected to nominate the next Prime Minister, as his coalition is the biggest one in parliament. Al-Sadr himself was not a candidate in the election, and therefore he could not be the next Prime Minister according to the Constitution, because he is not an MP.

Two, Hadi al-`Amiri’s Conquest Alliance, as the second biggest parliamentary block, and as reflecting the new strong role and influence of Al-Hashed al-Sha`bi in the liberation campaign from ISIS, is also expected to be in the government, particularly moreover that Al-Hashed is an extension of the recent influence of Iran in Iraq and the role of Qassem Sulaimani, Commander of Iran’s al-Qods Brigade, who was instrumental in training the units of Al-Hashed. This expected participation in the government by Al-Hashed may likely apply on the parties of Nuri al-Maliki and Ammar al-Hakim as well.

Three, Haidar al-`Abadi, who is pro-American, and was strongly propelled in 2014 by the United States to replace Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister, is expected to participate in the forthcoming government. The anti-American political parties and entities in Iraq, such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Al-Hashed al-Sha`bi, could not yet isolate or stamp out the influence of the United States in Iraq.

Four, the Kurdish parliamentary parties/coalitions, notably the KDP, which are also backed by the United States, will be expected to be part of the government.

Five, Iyad `Allawi will also likely be part of the governmental coalition, because, as former Ba`thist he is on good terms with Syria and close to it, and Iran may not oppose his participation in the cabinet due to its alliance with Syria.

Six, the Arab Sunni entities in the parliament, notably those of Osama al-Nujaifi and to a lesser degree Jamal al-Karbouli, could not be left out of the cabinet, simply because of what might be called “covenant” reasons with this historically important demographic component in Iraq, yet one which became most devastated since the American occupation. The overall low voter turnout of 44.5% of eligible voters across Iraq was doubly lower in the devastated Sunni areas, and thus the Sunnis shall likely be represented in the cabinet, not based on their parliamentary win and size in the Parliament as such, which came out to be relatively very small, but for convocational reasons à la Lebanese model. Otherwise, disaffection among the Sunnis will be further accentuated.


In sum, Iraq’s latest parliamentary election produced a new domestic political balance of power in which “Iraqism” and secularism were somewhat strengthened again as reflected in the substantial relative sizes of the coalitions of: Muqtada al-Sadr, Haidar al-`Abadi, Iyad `Allawi, and Osama al-Nujaifi, on the one hand, and the big shrinking of some particularly sectarian parties, such as the Da`wa of Nuri al-Maliki (from 92 deputies to 25), on the other hand. Even though Al-Hashed emerged as markedly a sectarian Shiite militia, its key role in getting rid of ISIS shall contribute to enhancing national integration and unity in Iraq – provided of course that rancorous politics and vindictiveness recede in the political process, and the rampant corruption by the new Shiite political elites and nouveaux riches, who have come to control the government since occupation, are dealt with by law.

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