Editor's Note: Additional material provided by Mr. Sowell was incorporated on 5 May.
Kirk H. Sowell is a Washington DC-based political analyst and the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics.
Q: How important are the Iraqi Provincial Elections and what do they tell us about the political pulse in Iraq?
A: The provincial elections are very important in setting the balance of power. They are less important in terms of the actual constitutional functions of the provinces. While the constitution, combined with the Provincial Powers Act of 2008, in principle gives the provinces broad powers, in practice the system has been undermined by the federal government's firm grasp. In some cases, such as security, this is deliberate, but to an extent is also due to bureaucratic immobility. The bulk of capital investment is controlled centrally, and that requires the approval of the Planning Ministry and the ministry concerned with the specific project in question (e.g. water, education).
Maliki has talked about devolving more power over non-security functions to provinces, but often in the context of assuming that his bloc would dominate and form "majority governments" within the provinces. The results so far indicate that he'll have slightly less power than before - a dominant position in seven of the ten Shia-majority provinces, but even there with that control shared with at least one or two other blocs, some of them rivals.
Q: A 51% turnout might look like voter disillusion. But it's the same figure as the last local elections in 2009 and in both cases there was restriction of movement due to security fears. While dominant in most Shi’a majority areas, Maliki’s State of Law coalition have lost votes, as have the Sadrist bloc (Ahrar coalition). This (along with the stronger showing for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led Coalition of the Citizen) appears to reflect some disenchantment among the Shi’a with the leading Ahrar/SLC populist coalitions. Is this voter apathy, protest voting or are the ISCI doing something right?
A: I'll begin by noting that the government's claim of a 50% participation rate is disputed by independent monitoring organizations in Iraq, the main ones being the Ein Network and the Taymuz Organization. Taymuz is putting it more around 46%. That's still respectable for what in the US we would call a "mid-term election" - national control isn't directly at stake, so turnout is lower. More concerning are allegations that turnout was deliberately suppressed in Sunni areas. Sunnis complain that security forces hindered movement to the polls in Baghdad and Diyala, and the Ein Organization has said they agreed with this.
And yes, there is no question there is disenchantment with the ruling parties. Services are still bad, corruption is widespread, and the security services are plainly failing at their basic tasks. Maliki controls the security services and the Sadrists control most of the public services ministries, including housing, water and labor. Also, all the parties who gave even qualified support to the Sunni protest movement lost seats.The Sadrists' efforts to co-opt the Sunni protests into helping them get an amnesty law passed cost them for sure, and Maliki's debaathification reforms just before the election may have cost him as well.
As for ISCI, their campaign events indicate they remain well-organized and well-funded, and I presume the funding comes from Iran. But they look set to get about 20% of the Shia seats, perhaps in large part based on not being in power and not having done anything notable to support the Sunnis.
Q: Al-Monitor recently said the election results demonstrate “a new rise of secular and liberal forces.” This does not seem to be reflected in the results, but small gains by secular parties such as the Iraqi Communist party might cause a headache for Maliki's attempts to consolidate control in the south. What do you think?
A: I don't think there is any basis for talking about the "rise of secular and liberal forces." The ICP in particular appears to have gotten a couple of seats, up from zero, maybe one or two percent of the total. There are several cases of locally-focused political parties getting a few seats , but some of these lack a clear ideology and some are some shade of Islamist. The biggest gainer in this election is ISCI, whose campaign was easily the most Islamist of any notable bloc.
It is also notable that in Baghdad a little-known ally of Muqtada al-Sadr won sixth place, with about the same number of votes as Allawi. Initial results in Baghdad suggest that 75 percent of the votes went to Shia Islamist blocs, with only a quarter to Sunni Arabs and explicitly secular Shia candidates, combined.
Whatever their ideology, the fact that in most of the Shia provinces there are independent parties which got seats Maliki’s bloc might have gotten does make things harder; if nothing else he has to share some positions and power. And ISCI's success is a potential problem for him. If these results are replicated next year, Maliki's chances of successfully forming a "majority government" could be difficult. The core of the idea is having an Arabist, centralist government without the Kurds, and ISCI will stand in the way of that.
Q: The Iraqi government has controversially postponed elections in Sunni majority provinces Anbar and Ninewa. Assuming they go ahead despite the current turmoil, how do you think this will affect the Sunni majority parties, for example, will voters converge around Osama Nujayfi’s comparatively moderate Mutahidun bloc or will voters back fringe groups, perhaps in Fallujah?
A: I would start by saying that it looks like they will go forward on the July 4 date the electoral commission has suggested, based on some comments by Maliki advisor Ali al-Musawi on al-Sumaria last thursday. But it is clear Maliki made a huge mistake - and no question the delay in Anbar and Ninawa was political. Now those provinces will very likely go hard against those parties more willing to work with Maliki. It should guarantee a strong majority by the Mutahidun for sure. The Fallujah groups aren't running in the election since they don't recognize the political process even in principle.
The real danger, which is already happening, is that the protest movement is converging toward the more militant wing. This we saw in the last few days, as the Ramadi protest site, which has largely avoided incitement to violence, has called for jihad.
Q: Arguably, the tragedy of these elections is that they show a vibrant support for democracy but overwhelmingly among the Shi'a. This is despite Maliki's heavily autocratic tendencies. In most of the majority Shi'a provinces-turnout has been respectable, leading parties have been punished while candidates have been rewarded for public service in Najaf and Maysan. But for many Sunnis these elections reflect division, anger and isolation. Do you agree?
A: I think for both it shows a strong belief in democracy and the electoral system; the participation rate in Salah al-Din was higher than anywhere in the country. And now the Huwija events threaten to destroy that progress. In Salah al-Din Governor Abdullah al-Jiburi, who was working well with the government, won first place. I believe that the Baathist-linked group that instigated Huwija did so deliberately because they were losing. Right now those pushing hostility have gotten a second wind.
Q: If these results are reflected in next year's national elections will we see a revival of ISCI's federalist agenda?
A: ISCI lost so much support over its federal region agenda during the 2006-2009 period that I think they'll have to be very careful about this. There is perpetual pressure in Basra in particular related to frustrations about the lack of services even as Basra oil fields provide much of the country's revenue. So I could see ISCI backing a softer version of that, not trying to revive the nine-province regional scheme again but just playing on that issue and arguing for more devolution. To the extent that ISCI's campaign focused on substance at all, they did have a series of public service projects they proposed in every province, so these two themes could coincide.
We'll have to see how the Shia coalition alignments work out. Sadrist leader Baha al-Araji was talking in a very Maliki-friendly way on al-Baghdadia's popular "Studio 9" program, and Maliki may return to previous tactics and a coalition with the Sadrists as the weaker party to undermine ISCI. But what I meant in terms of ISCI success is that if Maliki wants to move toward a Majority Government model, then given how many Kurds and Sunni Arabs he's alienated, he really needs every bit of Shia support now.
Q: People often praise Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi. Najaf enjoys decent local economic growth, good services and infrastructure and the three mainly Shi'a blocs performed disappointingly there. In one of Iraq's poorest provinces, Maysan, the three mainly Shi'a blocs received approx 30% of the vote each. What does that contrast tell us about Iraqi politics? Maybe issues count more than substance.
A: Najaf and Maysan differ in many ways but also have in common governors - Zurfi in Najaf and Ali Duwai Lazim in Masyan - who are quite active and visible on public service issues. Both have had major projects fail, but appear to have convinced their publics that the failures were Baghdad's fault. Zurfi has been close to the Dawa Party for years – although he’s had a falling out with Maliki’s bloc of late – and is a "soft Islamist," and with ISCI having come in second the results aren't all that different. Part of the difference that does exist is social class; people from Najaf are more middle class and educated, so instead of leaning toward the Sadrists, depending on their ideological orientation they'll go for ISCI, Maliki or someone like Zurfi. ISCI is close to Iran but its core cadre has always been well-educated and professional. Maysan is very poor and underdeveloped, and a traditional Sadrist stronghold.
It is also worth noting that while some provinces saw parties with a dynamic governor do well - in addition to Najaf and Maysan, Salah al-Din is an example of this - other provinces saw parties with governors perform poorly. The Dawa Party had governors in seven provinces and lost substantial vote share in every one.
Q: Radical group Asaib al-Ahl Haq did not run in the provincials. Like ISCI, perhaps all they will have to do until next year is wait until people are sick of their leaders in the International Zone and then reap the rewards. What do you think?
A: AAH - which by the way has formally changed its name and now goes by the Ahl al-Haq Movement, but analysts still call it AAH - has kept a low profile during the campaign but are certainly still active. There have been a string of attacks on Sunni mosques in recent days, and it is possible that some of them are attributable to Ahl al-Haq. The question is do they really have any potential for broad support, or does Maliki just view them as a tool? I don't know, and the fact that they didn't run means we couldn't use the election as a test. But I'll note that in a recent interview their leader, Qays al-Khazali, was very evasive when asked point blank about whether they followed Iranian Supreme Leader Al Khamenei as their spiritual authority. So they've gotten more diplomatic, but this may be contrasted with ISCI, which despite its Iranian ties, will say proudly they follow the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf. I don't think people anywhere follow a political movement that is deliberately ambiguous about what they really believe.