Sectarianism and the Iraqi Election: Two Potential Scenarios 


In 2010, a coalition called al-Iraqiyya, led by a secular Shi’a, Ayad Allawi, and composed of mostly Sunni parties, won a plurality in the Iraqi election. The coalition, however, did not secure the majority necessary to form the government. Instead, a grand Shi’a coalition formed after the election, the National Alliance, gained the majority. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki secured his second term in office as the head of “national unity” government, a euphemism for a government distributing its ministerial positions mainly based on ethnic and sectarian affiliation. When negotiations began about al-Iraqiyya’s positions in the government, a controversy ensued regarding whether it should be considered a Sunni coalition and given the “Sunni share” of positions, or continue to be identified, as its leader wanted, as a cross-sectarian coalition, an identification that was difficult to quantify in the ethno-sectarian formula of power sharing. In the end, the Sunni parties in the coalition took off the “cross-sectarian” hat and resigned themselves to recognizing their “Sunnism” in order to receive their share of power.

Crossing sectarian lines has long been an aspiration in Iraq, but it has often been outweighed by political realities and by the fact that the country’s political system has largely institutionalized ethno-sectarian representation. The upcoming parliamentary elections, slated for May 12, are not poised to substantially overcome these existing political divisions. Depending on the results, however, they might help accelerate a trajectory towards post-sectarian politics, as Douglas Ollivant recently noted in an article discussing a significant new trend of downplaying ethno-sectarian divisions while highlighting party ones. Intra-Shia rivalry in Iraq is likely to create two choices that will determine the basis on which the next government will be formed: either a second term for Abadi as the head of a centrist, reformist and more cohesive government, or a divided government with a new Shia prime minister leading a coalition of groups with various agendas. This is not simply a choice between majoritarian and power-sharing governments, nor between cross-sectarian alliances and ethno-sectarian quotas. It will be more nuanced, shaped by personality competition, political brands, policy differences, and an increasingly tense geopolitical context in which escalation between the United States and Iran could end those countries’ tacit bargain to back previous Iraqi governments.

Some of the major groups are seeking to extend their constituencies beyond their traditional sectarian and communal bases. The Nasr Coalition, led by Shi’a Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has a considerable number of Sunni candidates . Among them are serious contenders such as former minister of defense Khalid Al-Obaidi, whose party might secure a few seats in Mosul. Ammar Yussif , the former head of the Saladin provincial council, along with Rafi al-Fahdawi and Faysal al-Issawi—both pro-government tribal chieftains in Anbar—are also running on the Nasr electoral list.

Abadi’s electoral campaign targeted Sunni voters in a manner that can be described as unprecedented for a Shia Islamist leader since Iraq’s first parliamentary elections in 2005. He visited all major Sunni and Kurdish cities, and a source close to his campaign told me the campaign predicts the coalition will secure as many as 15 seats from Sunni votes. Neutral estimates put that count at eight to 10 seats, still a considerable number in an election in which no party is projected to win more than 60 seats.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition, Marching Forward, also includes small Sunni factions such as the Republican Gathering, and is based on a core alliance with the secular communist party. Even the Iranian-backed Fatah coalition, led by the Badr Organization (in turn headed by Hadi al-Amiri), includes Sunni candidates and could win one to three seats in predominantly Sunni areas.

Despite these attempts to cross sectarian boundaries, the main electoral competition will still take place along communal lines, as was the case in previous elections. The introduction of an electoral system based on proportional representation over 13 years ago encouraged parties to organize themselves along ethnosectarian lines. This was further institutionalized by governments adopting formulas of power-sharing along these lines, which deepened the split between Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish constituencies and entrenched these divisions in political practices and vocabulary. The 2010 election was the last significant attempt to mobilize cross-sectarian support, but even then, the two major coalitions—the Sunni Al-Iraqiya and Shia State of Law—were each inclined to over-represent one community, whether in their compositions or their discourse.  The current fragmentation in ethno-sectarian blocs and the absence of pre-electoral grand coalitions must not be mistaken for a substantial departure from sectarian politics, but only as a promising, albeit not irreversible, transition towards post-sectarian politics.

In the Shi’a constituency, five major alliances are competing for most of the seats: the Abadi-led Nasr, the Amiri-led Fatah, Maliki’s State of Law, the Sadr-backed Alliance, Marching Forward, and the Ammar al-Hakim-led Al-Hikma. Two main coalitions, the al-Wataniyya, led by the ex al-Iraqiyya leader Allawi,- and the Osama Nujeifi-led Iraqi Decision Alliance, along with a handful of smaller groups, are competing for most of the Sunni vote.

In Kurdistan, the Gorran group, the new party led by former prime minister of Kurdistan region, Barham Saleh, the newly formed New Generation Movement led by businessman Sashwar Abdul-Wahid, and the various Islamist movements are all trying to benefit from the decline in popularity of the two major parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Established groups prefer the strategy of running in small coalitions revolving around a dominant faction or figure to avoid losing votes to other partners and to maintain their cohesiveness. The current alliances are personality-centered groupings, in which the brand of the leading figure is the distinguishing factor. Additionally, since a 2010 federal court verdict stated that the largest coalition formed after the election would get the first chance to form the government, the parties have concluded that winning the largest number of seats is not necessarily the only winning strategy. Post-electoral alliances and compromises will determine which coalition will secure the position of prime minister and under which conditions. Therefore, as in Lebanon, elections in Iraq are important in shaping the relative weights of political parties and their leverage in post-electoral negotiation, but they are not straight paths towards governing.

In previous elections, divisions within ethno-sectarian blocs did not prevent those groups from subsequently forming large communal blocs along sectarian lines after the voting. In the absence of clear, cross-sectarian alliances, ethno-sectarianism often emerged as the only reliable organizing principle for post-electoral alliances. It was often safer for parties to ally with partners from within their own community, with whom they share broad agendas, than with outsiders, with whom trust and channels of communications are weak.

This dynamic is susceptible to change this time, but only partially. While it is unlikely that a cross-sectarian coalition will form immediately after the election, intra-Shia rivalries may result in a shift whereby sectarian identification is not the only consideration shaping post-electoral alliances.

Abadi’s goal is to secure no fewer than 50 seats and join other moderate Shia forces that are willing to accept his agenda—mainly the Sadr and Hakim coalitions. This agenda is centered on preventing the formation of a government based on apportionment of ministerial positions by party, a practice notoriously known in Iraq as Muhassesa, which has come under strong criticism in recent years, even by parties benefiting from it. Muhassesa is seen as the reason why Iraqi governments have often been divided, since each party controls a handful of executive positions and directs them to feed its patronage networks.  While this practice has been adjusted in the last few years, criticism of Muhassesa today implies a demand for merit-based cohesive governments. Abadi’s declared objective  is to form a government of technocrats supported by a parliamentary majority. Sadr is an advocate of such an arrangement and Hakim is likely to join as well. If such a Shia coalition secured around 100 of the 329 parliamentary seats, it will invite other Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish groups to join it. Under such an arrangement, communal solidarity will not be fully undermined, but rather conditioned by the need for a more effective and cohesive government.

The likelihood of this scenario depends on how Abadi and Shia moderate forces perform in the election. If Maliki’s State of Law, and Amiri’s Fatah perform better, the alternative scenario will be a government that excludes the Sadrists, reunites the Dawa party which is split between Maliki and Abadi, removes Abadi from the premiership, and selects a new figurehead to lead a power-sharing government. Maliki’s main electoral slogan is a call for a majority government, but his waning popularity and influence could incline him to accommodate an alternative arrangement, such as this one.  While some may assume that Sunni parties and some Kurdish parties will be more willing to support Abadi over an Iranian-backed coalition, one must not underestimate the appeal of ministerial positions, which bring with them patronage opportunities for political parties in the form of contracts and governmental appointees. Some Sunni and Kurdish groups might join a Maliki- and Amiri-backed government to obtain these positions, or simply because Abadi’s offer seems less attractive.

The possibility of presenting two different visions for the principles dictating the formation of the next Iraqi government is itself a step away from the ethno-sectarian paradigm and, perhaps, towards agenda-driven alliances in the next election. If realized, such a shift might help to reduce the divisive influence of sectarianism and open up better opportunities to initiate the reforms Iraq desperately needs. On the other hand, a reproduction of ethno-sectarian power sharing, simply based on the distribution of senior posts, will result in another weak, divided government in which patronage, corruption, and lack of accountability are the norms. If a post-ISIL Iraq is to be different from the past, tackling these governance issues is the right way to move beyond identity-driven conflicts that ISIL and other radical groups exploit to pursue their destructive agendas.


Dr. Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Image: Al Jazeera English/Flickr