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The Land of the Purple Finger Bucking the Odds

As Egypt “counts its votes” and Syria prepares for its own bogus elections in early June, a real and highly consequential democratic process continues into a critical phase in another Arab country where such a thing was for decades even more unlikely: Iraq.

Published on May 30, 2014

By far the most important thing about the preliminary results of Iraq’s April 30 parliamentary election is the nature of the conversation that is now taking place about them. It is a conversation about what it means for a sitting Prime Minister when he wins less than 30 percent of the vote but does much better than his rivals—and about whether Iraq’s next government should be one of broad national unity or formed on the basis of a simple majority. It is a conversation about deliciously esoteric and endlessly iterative matters of parliamentary arithmetic in a place where no identity group is close to monolithic and where almost any of the ten main factions is capable of working with any other.

It is a conversation, in other words, about government formation in a functional, stable, and constitutional electoral setting. There is no talk of coups, of disenfranchised minorities, or politicized electoral commissions. The process of forming the next government may take months, and current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the front-runner, although his victory is far from certain. Whoever does emerge atop what Disraeli called the “greasy pole”, there is no chance of a government that harbors al-Qaeda or belongs to the mullahs in Tehran, that invades its neighbors, assassinates its enemies, or gasses its own people. All of these things are vote-losers in Iraq, and in Iraqi politics today it is the vote that matters most.

The April election was the seventh time since January 2005 that Iraqis have gone to the polls on a national basis. The land of the purple finger has enjoyed four parliamentary elections, with an average turnout of 63 percent; two nationwide provincial elections, with an average turnout of 52 percent; and a constitutional referendum in which 63 percent of the country turned out to vote (and 79 percent voted “Yes”) on the republic’s inclusive, liberal, federalist constitution.

Every one of these ballots has been judged free and fair by international observers. Even ignoring the local circumstances that make this fact especially remarkable (the constant threat of jihadi violence on polling days, exacerbated by governance so poor that it is a wonder that anyone has enough faith in government to bother to vote at all), Iraqis have once again proven that they are more than deserving of the opportunity presented to them.

Iraq’s last electoral exercise under Saddam Hussein, a referendum on his presidency in 2002, yielded something notable even by the standards of genocidal banana republics: a 100 percent vote for Saddam, with a 100 percent turnout by his grateful people. This year’s vote comes at an especially poignant time for Arab democracy more broadly.

In Algeria this past April, 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won 82 percent of the vote, having never had to campaign in his 15 years in office. In Egypt, where Field Marshal Sisi now wears a civilian suit, just as Air Chief Marshal Mubarak did before him, next week’s elections, from which opposition is similarly cleansed, will yield a similar result. June’s elections in Syria will add a cruel sense of tragedy to the farce.

The precise results of Iraq’s April 30 election are impossible to come by currently. The final tally took two months to be certified last time, in 2010, after the electoral commission had investigated every complaint. We do know that Maliki did much better than anyone else, and probably better than expected, with about a hundred of the parliament’s 328 seats going to his coalition or to parties closely aligned to it. Maliki’s main opposition, the two Shi‘a parties run by the Hakim and Sadr families, won about 65 seats between them.

As the dust settles, what do the results mean, what comes next, and what should we be doing about it? The magic number is 165 seats—half of the total, plus one. On current estimates, the core, explicitly anti-Maliki parties form a clear majority, but whether they will have the discipline to stick together is debatable. The opposition Shi‘a parties, the Sunni list of Parliament Speaker Usama al Nujaifi (about 27 seats), the secular list of former PM Ayad Allawi (21), and the three main Kurdish parties (54) give the opposition 167 seats and a majority. These parties all get along well enough, but Maliki’s ability to pick off one or two here or there with the spoils of victory will be formidable.

Should Maliki not be the next Prime Minister, there will be no legitimacy problems, especially if his replacement comes from within his own State of Law (SOL) bloc. SOL is itself a coalition with significant potential for fracture, and Maliki is not an easy man to work with. He himself won the job in 2010 despite SOL’s coming second in the polls. This year, SOL’s share of the national vote declined from 28 percent to 25 percent.

After the 2010 elections, it took Iraq a world-record nine months to form a government. (The previous record-holder was Holland, with seven months in 1977; Belgium has since set a new record with 18 months in 2010-2011.) Iraq’s various factional leaders—apart from Maliki, curiously—either know each other well from years of working together against Saddam, are related by blood or marriage, or share deep family roots of status reaching far back into Ottoman days; usually it is at least two of these three. They will take their time, the rhetoric will often be fierce, and in the meantime al-Qaeda will commit a terrible atrocity every week or two. As ever in post-Saddam Iraq, it will all look much worse than it really is.

Key factors to watch as this process unfolds once more will be Iran, the Kurds, and Washington, DC. Tehran is not enamored of Maliki and will not insist on keeping him; like any Iraqi politician, he cannot afford to be Tehran’s client, and personally he is not inclined to be anyone’s client. Under his premiership, the contracting of all key elements of Iraq’s defense infrastructure, from small arms (M-16’s, M-4 carbines) up to tanks (M1 Abrams) and fighter jets (F-16s), has gone to the United States.

Iran wants an Iraq that works. This means functioning ministries in Baghdad, and in the west and north Sunnis and Kurds who can live with the status quo. Maliki is the worst option by far on all three counts, so Tehran will not be particularly vigorous in its support of him. Iran’s other priority in the aftermath of Iraq’s elections is, as ever, to see the country’s Shi‘a factions all present at the core of the new government, under a Shi‘a Prime Minister. As long as Sadr and Hakim stand firm, this will not be possible unless Maliki’s party is represented by someone other than himself.

The Kurds are another problem for Maliki. To the extent that he won his plurality on a political vision—on anything but incumbency, the absence of an exciting face for the opposition, and scare mongering about a Sunni threat that he has done more than anyone to encourage—it is a vision of strong central government. This puts him squarely at odds with the Kurds, whose three main parties have vowed publicly and privately since the election to stick together and not participate in any government of Maliki’s. He could buy them off with major concessions on sovereignty, but only by sacrificing his sole meaningful policy stance.

Maliki’s main advantages in the coming negotiation are the divided nature of the opposition and his current possession of the levers of the state. An overwhelming majority of Sunnis and Kurds (well north of 90 percent) voted against Maliki, as did  40 percent of his Shi‘a co-sectaries. The Obama Administration could well be his only other advantage. Washington is divided between a White House national security circle that defaults to Maliki as the “devil we know” option, and a pro-change camp, comprising Congress (especially the Senate) and Iraq professionals, at the State Department for example, who see up close how bad it is for U.S. interests to have Iraq managed as primitively, divisively, and autocratically as Maliki runs it.

The “devil we know” is a strategy that works best when plausible other outcomes could be worse, and when there is no positive value in change itself. These conditions do not obtain in Iraq today. No imaginable new coalition could possibly do worse than Maliki and his entourage at running the state, when it comes to everything from the economy and basic services to managing communitarian differences. Indeed all plausible non-Maliki outcomes would yield a significantly better-performing state than Iraqis currently enjoy. Just as important, given that a new ministry could not do worse than Maliki’s, peaceful democratic change of any kind would provide an extraordinarily powerful positive example for a desperate region.

Meanwhile, anyone replacing Maliki would have to start from scratch if he wanted to become a new Putin or Mubarak in Iraq; Maliki, on the other hand, now has an eight-year head of steam. Installing himself as acting Defense, Interior, and National Security Ministers since 2010, and taking over previously technocratic arms of the state such as the Central Bank, the Trade Bank of Iraq, the Supreme Court, and the national anti-corruption agency, Maliki has made his ambitions clear.

Bartle Bull, an author and journalist who has contributed from Iraq for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Washington Post, and other publications, is the former foreign editor of Prospect Magazine. He manages a fund that invests on the Baghdad stock exchange, and his next book is a history of Iraq.
  • Pete

    Is Iraq a real country? Maybe Biden was right — break it into thirds.

    • Happy Camper

      Was Biden right? You answered your own question.

  • Andrew Allison

    “No imaginable new coalition could possibly do worse than Maliki and his entourage at running the state, when it comes to everything from the economy and basic services to managing communitarian differences.” is good news? The fact that the elections were remarkably democratic is one thing, their result, the most likely outcome apparently being the return of the Maliki autocracy and continued conflict with the Sunnis and Kurds, quite another.

  • higgins1990

    Obama will probably bomb it to prevent Iraq from turning into a democracy. Can’t have GWB vindicated, you see.

  • http://WWW.JennyHatch.com/ Jenny Hatch

    The American left has been salivating for a civil war in Iraq for a long time.

    I wonder what sort of opinion pieces they would have written back in the day when America was taking its first toddling steps towards real freedom. Please never forget that we had our civil ward almost a century after our founding.

    If Iraq continues to struggle, but is able to maintain a real political process with relatively fair elections, I see that as win/win/win for all the sacrifice by our military.

    Who do we have to pay to get that purple finger thing going in America? My guess is it would immediately put most of the dems out of office if voters could really only vote once in America.