Iraq Hurtles Toward Another Election: What You Need to Know


Iraq continues to move slowly but surely towards recovery. The defeat of ISIL — despite a small insurgent pocket remaining in Kirkuk and Diyala — and the (relative) success of the Kuwait conference give Iraq the tools needed to continue moving forward and begin to solve its myriad of security, economic, and societal problems. Unresolved issues — the integration of Iraq’s battered Sunnis, the relationship with the United States, and the diversification of the national economy, to mention just a few — could lead to a resurgence of the Sunni extremism that saw its latest manifestation in ISIL.

First, however, Iraq must successfully navigate the next election, scheduled for May 12. This election — the second since the end of occupation — presents three key questions for Iraq: First, will Haider al-Abadi be able to retain the prime ministry? Second, will cross-sectarian lists find success? And third, will new voices be able to emerge and take real power? The proliferation of cross-sectarian and pro-reform parties is an encouraging sign, but it remains to be seen whether change has truly come to Iraqi politics at this early stage.

Unlike earlier elections in 2014 and especially 2010, the 2018 race will be characterized by a diversity of choices. In 2010, there were essentially only four parties or “lists,” two Shi’a, one Sunni, and one Kurdish (a list is how candidates are arrayed for the voter on the ballot. A list may have more than one party in a coalition, and conversely a party may be on more than one list). This year there are (arguably) five major Shi’a lists, two major Sunni lists, two major Kurdish lists, and several interesting independent and/or new parties and lists — for a total of 88 lists overall (though several of those are individuals and minority lists).

Given this diversity of parties, no single list will garner anything approaching a majority of the seats. The leader of the “largest block” (which can be formed after the election, per 2010 precedent) will have a herculean task in assembling his coalition. Most observers expect that no list will get more than 40, perhaps 50, of the 329 available seats, in the best case (all estimates of likely election results are my own, based on conversations with multiple Iraqi sources in Baghdad). So even if Abadi’s “Victory” list gets 50 seats, he will still need to find at least another 115 seats (and realistically many more than that, given typical attendance levels in parliament) to reach 165 required for a parliamentary majority to form a government. This desire to cement a solid block of seats no doubt played into Abadi’s short-lived alliance with Hadi al-Ameri’s “Conquest” list, in which the two groups briefly agreed to be on the same list.

Whoever finds himself putting together the coalition will have several pools of seats from which to draw, however. Both Conquest and Nouri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” are expected to draw roughly 30 seats, while the parties led by the younger scions of the Hakim and Sadr families are handicapped at fewer (though each certainly hopes to exceed expectations). More than one of my interlocutors pointed to this diffusion of Shi’a parties as an expression of Iranian weakness, as it appears Tehran no longer has the power to force all, or most, of the Shi’a politicians into one consolidated list.

On the pure Sunni side, the “Patriotic” list of Iyad Allawi, Saleh Mutlaq, and Salim al-Jabouri could take 25 seats, while the “Resolution” list of the Nujayfis is expected to take significantly fewer. And on the Kurdish side, the combined list of the traditional Kurdish Democratic Party (KPD) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) parties will compete against the new coalition of Gorran, Komal (the Kurdish Islamists), and Barham Saleh’s “Alliance for Democracy and Justice.” I found no educated observer in Baghdad who was willing to speculate on how these two alliances would split the roughly 50 seats generally won by the Kurdish parties.

From these available pools of seats on the major lists — plus independents, minorities, and smaller parties — the leader of the largest block will have to try to craft a working coalition, whether a majority government (much discussed but never yet tried) or simply a national unity government composed of all the significant vote-winning parties, as has been the practice to date. Most observers expect any attempt to create a majority government, with some parties/lists left out of the distribution of ministries and therefore in opposition, to be very difficult. With the large number of lists, even a very successful party will have only a bare plurality of seats — winning 20 percent would be well in excess of current expectations. So rather than a more stable parliamentary model, where two to four parties negotiate a coalition, it is likely that five or six parties — at minimum — will have to agree to form the new Iraqi government. In other words, the negotiations will more closely resemble the complex coalitions of Italy and Israel, rather than the simpler ones of Britain and Germany.

Another encouraging sign is the emergence of cross-sectarian tendencies in the major lists. The most obvious instance of this trend is the case of Srwa Abdulwahid, the leader of the Kurdish Gorran delegation in parliament. She was listed as a candidate on Abadi’s Victory list. Despite rumors of her withdrawing (due to Kurdish pressure), she is still listed as of this writing. And she is not an isolated case. Both the Victory list and Ameri’s Conquest list have Sunni Arab candidates running in Anbar and Nineveh, and both will probably win seats in those provinces, particularly as the Victory List in Nineveh is led by former Defense Minister Khalid Obeidi, a popular figure in his hometown of Mosul. While it is too strong to call this development revolutionary, it is nonetheless a serious new trend that will change the nature of government formation, potentially downplaying ethno-sectarian divisions while highlighting party ones. This would be a healthy development, should it materialize. Both Victory and Conquest are running in 18 provinces — meaning they will try to win seats in all three of the Kurdish provinces — while Hikma is running in 16, contesting seats in Sulmaniya but not Erbil and Dohuk. While by no means a panacea, a list coming out of elections with a Shi’a base and significant Sunni Arab, and perhaps Kurdish, parliamentary representation, would be a new phenomenon in Iraqi politics.

This election is also seeing the emergence of a number of “reform” parties and lists. There are many, but I will focus on just a few. In the north, Barham Salih, the former KRG Prime Minister and PUK stalwart, has broken off to form the Coalition for Democracy and Justice. His platform (19 pages, emailed to me in English), gives a laundry list of technocratic reforms across the entire range of Iraq’s politics and political economy — judicial reform, tax reform, housing reform, health care reform, education reform, and so forth. Of course, being a Kurdish-based party, the coalition also focuses on Kurdish independence, but makes it clear that there are preconditions to be set and that an independent Kurdish state would have to be “elaborately and extensively negotiated with the federal government in Baghdad.” The Coalition for Democracy and Justice is running independently in the three provinces of the KRG proper (Erbil, Dohuk and Sulimaniyah), and on a combined list with Gorran and Komal in Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Diyala.

In Baghdad, Abdul Basit Turki, who is both a former central bank governor and the former head of the Board of Supreme Audit, is heading the Iraqis for Change movement, running on an explicitly anti-corruption, anti-sectarian and anti-foreign influence platform. Iraqis for Change is running in six provinces — Baghdad, Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala, Sallahdin, and Najaf. When I spoke with Basit in Baghdad last month, he was quite passionate about providing a new alternative to the traditional options Iraqis have had — primarily Iraqi Sunnis, based on the provinces in which his list is running.

Finally, while not exactly a new party, perhaps the loudest reform voice is Hikma, or “Wisdom,” the new party that Amar al-Hakim broke away from his earlier vehicle, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (which was in turn, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq). In my discussion with al-Hakim, he laid out Hikma’s broad — if not terribly specific — platform emphasizing non-sectarianism, youth, women, education, and a technocratic government. Their grassroots membership appears to be strong, though whether strong enough to break through the older political machines has yet to be seen. As mentioned earlier, Hikma is fielding candidates in 16 provinces.

What strikes at first glance is that while all of these parties seek to break a fresh path and redefine politics as usual, each is led by a very familiar face. Nor is it any great secret that none of these parties are expected to do particularly well. However, should one (or more) of the parties — or ones like them — exceed expectations, it could signal a new political awareness in Iraq. And it goes without saying that Baghdad is desperately in need of new politics.

Diversity appears to be breaking out within all of Iraq’s communities, bringing new political trends to the forefront and splintering previous political alliances. Of course, diversity of candidates does not mean there will be diversity in electoral outcomes. The voters always have the last word and could well decide to return the usual suspects, in the same political alignments, to parliament. Further, it is not at all clear that this hoped-for diversity increases stability, or in any way makes for a more functional (or less corrupt) government once it is formed. The general opinion in Baghdad seems to be that whoever emerges from this process as the next prime minister (either Abadi for a second term or some other candidate) will be weaker than Abadi is today. And government formation, despite the prodding of outside powers (the United States, Iran, and Turkey) is still expected to be a drawn-out process of some months.

Of course, this is just the handicapping with the elections about two months away, and the voters can always decide to surprise the world. But this is — as best as I can determine — conventional wisdom, from which variations can be measured.

Iraq has survived a number of challenges since 2014, when elections were last held. Those who predicted the “end of Iraq” have been proven wrong, as were those who doubted the ability of a then-routed Iraqi army to retake Mosul a few short years later. This election promises to put a final bookend on ISIL’s occupation of northwest Iraq, and let a new government (if not a new prime minister) begin the long work of recovery and reconstruction. The next major step in Iraq’s history belongs not to the army, but to the voters.


Douglas Ollivant, a former NSC Director for Iraq during the Bush and Obama administrations, is an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America. He is a managing partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington, Beirut and Baghdad, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Shane S. Keller