Friday, February 20, 2009

Provincial Seat Allocation - Further Cause for Discontent

The official results are out for Iraq's provincial elections, providing much tinder for discontent with the political system. The big winners percentage-wise are even bigger winners in the allocation of seats in the councils. This is good news for al-Maliki's State of Law list, who saw its control of provincial councils boosted, as well as ISCI and the Sadrists, but is a major blow to all of the Iraqis who spent their votes on the numerous individual and small party candidates that ran in opposition to the politics of the main established parties. Due to the threshold required to actually gain a seat, votes split among the many alternative candidates go unrepresented. They are essentially discounted, with the resulting math giving the main parties an even bigger allocation of seats than their vote percentage would indicate. Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs offers a thorough analysis of the results.

This will do little to steel confidence and interest in the political system, especially for those fed up with what they see as the corruption and self-interest of the established parties that continue to benefit from the system they have created. Unless the opposition realizes the need to create a strong and unified alternative, more of the same can be expected in the national elections later this year.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

State of Law List Turns to Coalition-Making

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance has turned to the task of making the coalitions required to run the provincial councils. The Alliance formed a central subcommittee charged with approaching the other lists to form coalition governments in the nine provinces where State of Law won. Prominent among the other lists State of Law has contacted is the Sadr-supported Liberals’ Independent Trend (Tayaar al-Ahrar al-Mustaqil). According to a State of Law representative, the two lists have "made great strides" toward agreement on the conditions that would underly a ruling coalition. The report in Wednesday's al-Sabah newspaper is typically vague, but it is interesting that al-Maliki's list is prominently touting its advances toward the Sadrists in Sabah, the government's mouthpiece. It would seem that the Sadrists are not as down and out as a political force as many would believe.

The article also reported that the final results of the elections will be announced on Thursday and that 32 polling centers' results were discounted due to irregularities, up from earlier reports of 30.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fraud Allegations in the Iraqi Provincial Elections

The Independent High Electoral Commission is poised to announce the final results of Iraq's provincial elections amidst what news sources have called "minor" fraud. The announcements should be out on Tuesday or Wednesday. By most measures the electoral fraud was indeed minor when you consider the background within which the elections were conducted. What matters here, however, is not how the elections hold up to international scrutiny, nor their comparison to any objective standard, but rather how the Iraqis themselves view the elections and their results. On this account, evaluations of the elections are a bit more cloudy.

While the level of fraud may indeed be minor, any tampering is likely to be seen by the losers and their supporters as evidence that they were cheated out of their rightful voice. A report in February 16th's Azzaman newspaper alleged that as many as 250 of the winning candidates in the elections (out of a total of 440) provided forged diplomas when they applied for their candidacy. The electoral law required that candidates have at least a high school diploma, so these winners would be ineligible for their seats on the councils on the face of it.

A council member quoted in the article also stated that the votes of up to 30 election centers in Baghdad, Mosul, and Diyala were discounted due to fraud. It seems that some of these stations' votes were discounted because the voting totals there exceeded 100 percent of the registered voters in the district, indicating that ballot boxes were being stuffed.

While these violations may not have significantly affected the outcome of the election, they will heighten the discontent of those who feel that they have been cheated out of their representation. Even where these feelings are completely unfounded, the hint of irregularities opens the way for people to challenge the validity of the whole process. Accompanied by high handedness of the victors in distributing the spoils or prolonged quarreling over ruling coalitions, these allegations of electoral fraud could be a major incitement toward defection from the political process. In short, while the fraud may be statistically insignificant, it could be turned by wily politicians into a major factor in driving discontented Iraqis to obstruct the political process, to return to violence, or to justify other non-democratic tactics to get their way in the future.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Iraq Tense Ahead of Arbaeen

Shi'a pilgrims are flooding into Iraq and heading toward Karbala for the commemoration of Arba'een. Arba'een, simply Arabic for forty, marks the fortieth day after the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib and his companions at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. This battle came on Ashura, Arabic for ten, the tenth day of the month of Muhharram.

Hussein was the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of the Prophet Muhammed, and Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. Hussein and his companions were hunted down and killed by a force of the Umayyad caliph, Yazid, headed by Umar ibn Sa'ad. Hussein's martyrdom did much to crystallize a sense of persecution in the followers of Ali (Shi'a Ali). The Shi'a were often a repressed minority throughout Islamic history and the Ashura and Arbaeen rituals have been powerful reminders of this status and the trials they have gone through at the hands of others.

This year, the situation is tense as pilgrims flock to Karbala for Arbaeen. Four bomb attacks since Wednesday have killed at least 46 people and the Iraqi government has set out heavy security in the areas in and around Karbala to attempt to prevent further violence as reported by AFP.

Many analysts do not believe that these attacks will bring about a revival of the wave of sectarian war sparked by the bombing of the Askariyya Shrine in 2006. The shrine, located in Samarra, is the resting place of the 10th and 11th Shi'a Imams and was blown up by Sunni militants linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The violence that came in the wake of this bombing had more to do with battling for strategic control of territory between Iraqi groups than sectarian animosity. As such, the situation has been sorted out and is much more stable today than it was in 2006. More bloody attacks, however, could certainly result in some degree of increased sectarian violence and will hamper attempts to create trust and reconciliation through national, rather than sectarian, political cooperation ahead of national elections later this year.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Abd al-Khaliq al-Mukhtar

For years, most news out of Iraq has centered on violence and politics. Today, a different kind of somber news dominated headlines in Iraq. An immensely popular actor, Abd al-Khaliq al-Mukhtar, made his return to Baghdad after a lengthy absence.

Born in Baghdad in 1960, al-Mukhtar would go on to be one of Iraq's greatest actors. He graduated with a bachelors degree in theater from Baghdad University's Academy of Fine Arts in 1982. He attained a masters there in 1989 after service as a reserve officer in the Iran-Iraq War that left him severely wounded. The wounds would haunt him for the rest of his life.

He worked in theater and television, earning accolades and influential positions in the Baghdad art scene. Perhaps the peak of his popularity came when he portrayed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Said in a television series. Al-Said was an influential politician during the British-installed monarchy and lost his life in the 1958 Revolution. In the wake of the 2003 invasion, his portrayal of al-Said struck a chord with the Iraqi people.

Al-Mukhtar's wounds and the severe bleeding that followed permanently damaged his kidneys, sapping his ability to pursue his work in recent years. He required constant medical attention and some of this treatment may have led to a fatal infection. In his last days, al-Mukhtar held out hope that he would be able to travel to Amman for kidney replacement surgery. He told Abd al-Jabbar al-Atabi of Elaph that he longed to return to Baghdad and breathe the air that would heal his body and his soul.

But al-Mukhtar succumbed to his ailments on Sunday, 8 February, in Damascus. His body did return to an emotional welcome in Baghdad on Tuesday, where fans and fellow artists choked the streets and carried his coffin to the National Theater before the procession went on to his final resting place.

For once, Baghdad mourned not a victim, but a national hero.

Photo from Elaph. Elaph in Arabic on the funeral procession in Baghdad. Elaph in Arabic on his death. NY Times blog on the same.

Iraq Updates - Parliament and Entry Through Kurdistan

Two issues are prominent in Arab media headlines on Iraq now that coverage of the elections has died down a bit.

First, the Iraqi National Assembly has been unable to elect a new speaker of the parliament, despite several attempts, to replace current speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. The various political factions have been unable to come to an agreement on who the candidates should be, prompting several walk-outs to ensure no quorum was available. The latest is that the voting has been delayed until 18 February. Mashhadani is from the Sunni Tawwafiq bloc and the position is considered by many Sunnis to be part of the three-way sectarian power sharing agreement, under which the Shia have the prime ministership, the Kurds the presidency, the Sunnis the vice presidency and evidently the speakership. Other parties are not so convinced. The parliamentary deadlock over the issue is indicative of the continuing contentious nature of the Iraqi political system and the difficulty of exceeding the sectarian bounds set by the early success of political parties that were organized along sectarian lines. It does seem, however, that Iraqi politicians are becoming more adept at handling these issues with the passing of each deadlock. Al-Dustour reports in Arabic here.

Second, in a crackdown on Kurdish attempts to act as a semi-state, the Ministry of the Interior has announced that foreigners shall not enter Iraq through Kurdish border crossings without official visas from Baghdad and that those who did enter without an Iraqi visa would be arrested. For his part, a Kurdish representative spoke to Kurdish support for this decision. This represents Baghdad's attempts to expand its control and services across the country and to assert the unity of Iraq. The central government's capacity is still sorely lacking in this campaign, but it is slowly on the rise. With regard to Kurdistan, however, the biggest issue, Kirkuk, is still looming on the horizon. Al-Hayat reports in Arabic here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Iraq's Provincial Elections - The Initial Results

I'm working on an analysis of the initial results of the provincial elections. This will likely be the last bit included in the book as the rest of it is near the end of the typesetting process. I will post at least a portion of that analysis soon, but in the interim, here are some links and a quick synopsis.

A rundown of initial results of the January 31, 2009 provincial elections in Iraq can be found at the NY Times Baghdad Bureau Blog. A good, but brief, snapshot comparison of the 2005 and 2009 elections is here, also at the NYT blog. Alissa Rubin's analysis in the NYT is here.

For those who can read Arabic, the Independent High Electoral Commission's reports can be found on the press releases page. Scroll down to the releases from February 7, the title of the section is اعلان النتائج الاولية للانتخابات and links to results from each province are found at the bottom of the section.

In a short synopsis, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition (List 302) dominated much of the south, coming out in the top position in nine provinces and winning seats in every province except Anbar and Nineveh. The list gained large pluralities in Basra (37 percent), Dhi Qar, (23.1 percent), and Qadissiya (23.1 percent) and won a critical 38 percent in Baghdad.

ISCI was significantly weakened, but retained some power throughout the south, with their Martyr of the Mihrab and Independent Force List (List 290) finishing second to State of Law in six provinces and registering a third place ranking in two more. In Baghdad, though, the list’s 5.4 percent of the vote placed it behind five other lists. This was a crushing blow for a party that had controlled 54.9 percent of the Baghdad council for the three years prior.

The Sadrists made a modest showing, but their Liberals’ Independent Trend (List 284) won seats in eleven provinces, placing in the top three in Baghdad, Babel, Dhi Qar, Maysan, Najaf, Qadissiya, and Wasit. The Fadhila Party (List 174), former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's list (List 153), and Jawad al-Bolani's Iraqi Constitution Party (List 482) all won small numbers of seats across much of Iraq.

In the critical Sunni Anbar Province, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which allied with Ahmed Abu Risha (brother of slain Awakening leader Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha) and his faction of tribal forces, was relegated to a third-place position with 15.6 percent of the vote (List 433). This was a major realignment, compared to the 81.6 percent the IIP won in the 2005 elections that were boycotted by almost every other Sunni political force. Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Project Gathering (List 149) took the top spot, with 17.6 percent of the vote. The Alliance of the Awakening of Iraq and Iraqi Independents (List 239) followed closely, gaining 17.1 percent of the vote. Thus, the Awakening members were not completely successful in their quest to oust the IIP from Anbar.

What does all of this mean? I'll post soon on more election details and, more importantly, the implications behind the numbers.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Iraqi Bloggers on the Election

The NY Times ran an op-ed on the Iraqi elections from the point of view of three Iraqi bloggers.

A few of their comments:

Although you can still see the spark in the eyes of Iraqis as they dip their fingers in the indelible ink, there is an air of “been there, done that,” indicating that the novelty of voting has disappeared. We understand the process — we’ve done it four times. ...
It was clearly far from perfect. In many places people were denied the right to vote when their names couldn’t be found in the registers. The huge number of candidates — nearly 15,000 for 440 seats on the councils of the 14 provinces holding elections — isn’t really a sign of political maturity, but rather shows a combination of greed and ignorance about the duties of council members.
But, by Allah, we’re looking at our own politicians for answers instead of looking abroad. If we manage to repeat this success in the national elections at the end of this year, I think we can confidently say that we’ve got the hang of this democracy thing.

-Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blogger

Most of the people I know were not voting based on sects, but on sense. We are sick to death of corruption and sectarianism, and desperate for a change. ...
On my way home I developed an obsession of looking at the fingertips of every man and woman I passed. Too many had no ink. I hope the electoral committee does its part better than we did. I hope the election will not be fraudulent and the winners will not let us down. And I hope the people who didn’t vote this time will do so next time, and a real democracy will be achieved in the land where the first laws of the human race were set.
-Dr. Mohammed, Last of Iraqis

Early Saturday morning, I got a bunch of text messages on my cellphone asking me to vote for Mohammed Shakir, the Iraqi Islamic Party’s candidate for governor of Nineveh Province. Not me: we gave the Islamic Party a chance in previous elections, but they disappointed. ...
Mosul has been one of the most violent spots in Iraq, almost unbearable to live in. We have electricity for only two to four hours a day. The provincial council is responsible for public services and local security; it is now dominated by Kurds, even though Arabs are the vast majority in Mosul.
The Kurds undoubtedly voted for their own candidates, while the Arab vote was most likely splintered. In the end, I guess, no one group will dominate; we must hope
the new council will make a change for the better.
-Bookish, Mosul is in My Heart

Their comments bring several thoughts to mind. First, the security situation and the political process have improved in many ways in Iraq. Only eight candidates were killed prior to this election in contrast to hundreds of deaths in the run up to previous elections. The improved security situation also allowed for much more robust campaigning in Iraq, from tours and stumping, to animated banners on Iraqi blogs, forums, and other websites, to the text messages mentioned by Bookish, to outright bribes.

This brings up a second point. A major theme in the elections has been Iraqis discontent with corruption, poor performance, violence, and sectarianism. For this reason, many hoped that these elections would mark a significant defeat for sectarian and religious forces in Iraq, and in a way, they did.

Yet, for several reasons, the religious parties are still strong in Iraq. Da'wa, at the head of the State of Law List, ISCI (Martyr of the Mihrab List), the Sadrists, and the Iraqi Islamic Party all fared relatively well in the polling. These parties are well established, have significant material and organizational resources, and have the momentum of prior electoral campaigning and name recognition behind them. Perhaps more importantly, although many Iraqis were fed up with these parties, the opposition, whether secular, moderate, or tribal, did not coalesce into a single (or even a few) force capable of competing directly against these religious lists. Therefore the votes of those looking for a significantly different way in Iraq were split among a myriad of lists. Finally, views of Nouri al-Maliki's performance, once the subject of ridicule, have turned around significantly with late improvements in security and services, buoying support for his State of Law List. This List came out on top in many provinces, relegating ISCI to a secondary position across southern Iraq. It is hard to say, however, what Maliki's coalition has in mind for the future of Iraq. The once-weak prime minister is now accused by opponents of angling to become a new Iraqi strongman.

In any case, the elections were a significant step forward and are a potential stepping stone toward more meaningful national elections upcoming later this year, but there are still a great number of obstacles on the path to stability in Iraq. The country's thorniest issues are yet to be solved and the institutions that underpin a true, peaceful democracy will take years or decades to build. It would not take much to push Iraq back into chaos at this point, but the country has undeniably begun to take its first tentative steps in the right direction. Do not believe those who say that, with one more election, Iraq will have a true democracy. At the same time, it cannot be said that the events of January 31st, and all that led up to it, are meaningless.

About the Blog

I have started this blog to provide information about the release of my first book, Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy. It is due out in June 2009 from Potomac Books. In the blog, I will provide updates on the book's status, as well as commenting on current events in Iraq when I have the time. I look forward to starting a dialogue and reading the comments of those who happen to pass by the blog.

In addition to my blog posts, I plan on adding a number of links to other blogs and websites on Iraqi and Middle East issues in general. Hopefully these resources will prove useful.