With a high turnout amidst an ongoing threat of violence, the 2014 Iraqi parliamentary elections, the first since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq, were met with an air of optimism by Baghdad and international powers alike. However, any positive sentiment on the surface has to be taken with a big pinch of salt.
With the latest national elections marking the third such occasion, parliamentary elections are hardly new for Iraq and it has already surpassed 11 years since the overthrow of Saddam.
Fed up of rampant corruption, lack of public services, continued threat of terrorism and high unemployment in spite of the billions of dollars Iraq receives from oil revenues, people voted in high numbers with an eagerness for change and a new passage.
The burning question is whether Iraqis, with the exception of the Kurdistan Region, really enjoy a better standard of living and better services since 2003 and whether a new government will mean a change to their fortunes.
It says much about the escalating bloodshed in Iraq that Baghdad deemed it a success that “only” 14 people were killed on polling day.
A frequent theme of the post-Saddam period, especially under the taxing tenure of the US, was national reconciliation, enticing the disaffected Sunnis into the political fold and an effective sharing of power that would appease Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike.
In 2014, Iraq is probably as far as ever from national unity or reconciliation. Iraq was built around three distinct segments and effectively will always be fractured. It is a question of how to “glue” the constituents the best way possible knowing that there will never be a perfect fit.
For a start national unity governments based on a quota system are always going to fail. Due to the fragmented nature of the Iraqi ethno-social picture elections can feel like a national census than a real democratic passage.
For example, Shiites clearly form a majority of the Iraqi population and will dominate Iraqi elections even if you held the elections another 10 times over. Sunnis and Kurds will always dominate their local sphere but never at a national level and thus remain at risk of marginalisation.
Effectively, this mix makes a very protracted and arduous task of satisfying all parties.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a prime example of the Iraqi divide. He is reviled by Sunnis for sidelining them from politics, promoting a sectarian agenda, failing to address Sunni discontent and fuelling the revived Sunni insurgency. At the same time, he is been heralded in other circles as the strongman that can overcame the insurgency and keep Iraq intact.
The Kurdistan Region on the other hand has been at loggerheads with Baghdad right from day one and has frequently accused Maliki of centralist tendencies and policies that set to deliberately undermine Kurdish progress and keep the lifeline of the Kurds within Baghdad hands.
Yet, Maliki’s State of Law is likely to be triumphant at the polls. Of course, he has is far from securing the 165 seats majority needed and his third tenure as Prime Minister is far from certain but he will start in the driving seat. Maliki’s first move would be to entice the other weary and cautious Shiite coalitions in the Citizen Coalition, led by Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim, the Ahrar coalition of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr and the National Reform Alliance led by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
The four main Shiite coalitions alone represent 42 political entities, many with differing views and agendas, highlighting the disjointed and difficult nature of Iraqi politics.
With the Shiite alliances representing a significant portion of the seats, add to the considerable Sunni and Kurdish vote, the number of possible permutations to form government are considerable.
This inevitably means that political jockeying and negotiations may well run into many months as in 2010.
The Kurds were deemed the kingmakers at the past elections and are likely to muster close to the 57 seats secured in 2010. Having supported Maliki’s two tenures as Prime Minister in spite of numerous failed promises and Maliki’s continued stand against Kurdistan, the main Kurdish political parties will need to be certain that whoever they rubber stamp in Baghdad can give them their key demands of oil exports, share of the national budget and seemingly forgotten resolution to disputed territories.
If Maliki continues as premier and centralist policies against Kurdistan continue, or conversely if the Sunni insurgent fire is not contained, Iraqis may not see another national election come 2018.