Tribes, Political Parties, and the Iraqi Elections: A Shifting Dynamic
Tribes have long been recognized as a key player in Iraqi politics. Yet, as the Oct. 10 elections approach, the large tribal gatherings and celebrations at which the country’s political blocs would normally seek to court tribes and sheikhs are noticeably absent. Unlike past years, political leaders are not tripping over each other to visit tribal mudhaief, or guest houses, put on lavish feasts, and distribute gifts, from pistols to plots of land, in search of tribal support.
It would be a mistake, however, to see this as evidence that tribal power has diminished. Instead, recent political changes have allowed tribes to push for a new and potentially more powerful role. By positioning themselves politically as the “true representatives of the people,” tribes are seeking to loosen the grip of the parties, or at the very least to reframe their relationships to them in order shift from being a purely mobilizing force that serves the interests of the party, to becoming more assertive political actors in their own right.
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, in light of the general antipathy towards the political class, especially following the protests that erupted in October 2019, tribes are wary of being seen to be engaging too closely or too publicly with the country’s politicians. This is particularly the case among the mainly Shiite tribes of the center and south, which is where the protests were brutally put down, and where tribes are trying to distance themselves, publicly at least, from the political blocs. Secondly, the introduction of a new election law, which does away with the list-based voting system and increases the number of constituencies, thereby favoring local candidates, has brought about a shift in the dynamic between the political blocs and tribes, opening more space for tribes to assert themselves and impose their own agendas.
While tribes are still just one actor among many, these elections have the potential to give them greater bargaining power. In this way, the elections will serve as an important test of whether tribes can play a bigger role in the formal political arena going forwards.
Marriage of Convenience
Tribes have always represented a significant constituency for Iraq’s political blocs, especially in those areas where the latter have limited reach. It is here that tribes have traditionally worked hand-in-hand with political blocs to secure the election of certain candidates who will serve the interests of both. Outside of the main urban centers, tribes still hold sway and influence, and even in the cities they remain a potent collective force and social reality. Describing this influence, several sheikhs invoked the same phrase: tribes are an “electoral crane that raises politicians to power.”
This does not mean that tribes are static and unchanging. Rather, they are complex and shifting entities that evolve and adapt according to the changing political and security environment. They are also supremely pragmatic. While tribes are often depicted as being in opposition to the state and to modernization, throughout history they have been willing to work with whoever is in power to further their interests.
This has included working with the mainly Shiite political blocs that have dominated Iraq’s political scene since 2005. This makes for a curious alliance given that, like the nationalists before them, political Islamists adhere to an ideology that does not sit comfortably with tribal values. Political Islam’s aspiration to the ummah as a comprehensive and undifferentiated community of believers rubs up against the tribal attachment to kinship, which, in the minds of tribesmen, tends to trump religion. Tribes are also broadly secular in orientation and have tended to shy away from the formal political arena. As Sheikh Adnan Danbous of the Kenana tribe told me, “Political Islamists are keen on using tribes but the irony is that they don’t like tribes. They are against them in their discourse.”
Yet various Shiite blocs have gone out of their way to court tribes, particularly in the center and south, setting up tribal offices in almost every political body and state institution in a bid to reach out beyond their limited constituencies. This wooing of tribes has been most apparent during the run-up to elections. With electoral participation tending to be higher in rural and semi-rural areas than in the large urban centers, the parties know that the surest way to success is to engage tribal support ahead of the polls. As Danbous observed, “Political parties say tribes are backwards and cannot enter politics, yet they use them when elections come along.”
This does not mean that tribes have stood behind a particular party or political bloc. As Ali Juwad Witwit has argued, there has been no unified political orientation inside most tribes since the 1950s. Rather, tribesmen are split across different political currents, with the sheikh no longer in any position to dictate to the tribe how to vote. However, at the local level, tribal sheikhs and alliances have been able to steer the general direction of their tribe towards a particular candidate in return for the promise of jobs and services in often bereft and underdeveloped areas. In other words, the sheikh provides the votes and the party provides the goods in what is fundamentally a marriage of convenience.
Yet while the tribe and the party have generally agreed together upon particular candidates who will stand on the party’s list, the party has usually had the upper hand. Given its ability to siphon off state funds in exchange for tribal support, and to control the list-based voting system, the party has generally called the shots. As Iraqi researcher Ammar al Amiri explained to me in an interview, “The tribes provide the candidate and support him with votes, but the political party supplies gifts, money for the campaign and for promotions that ensure the candidate can win.” As such, the tribe has been more of a mobilizing force than a partner.
It is for this reason that the pre-election period has normally been characterized by politicians making showy visits to tribes and sheikhs in their mudhaief and attending large gatherings where tribal rituals are celebrated and enormous feasts consumed. Often in this process, candidates “seek to appear next to the tribal leaders,” “wear clothing specific to a region or tribe,” or declare “loyalty to [the tribe], glorify its role and history, and pledge to defend its interests.”
The “October Effect”
The run-up to the 2021 elections, however, is proving to be somewhat different. Tribes have sought to distance themselves, publicly at least, from the parties. The big celebrations and public visits by political leaders are either not happening or have been toned down. This is especially true in the central and southern governorates that were gripped by mass protests from October 2019 onwards. Iraqis who took to the streets to express their frustration at dire living conditions and widespread corruption were brutally put down in a way that has not been forgotten. As Sheikh Raed Frieji of the Freijat tribe in Basra told me in August, “There are some visits by some political leaders to some of the sheikhs to try to buy votes, but after the 2019 demonstrations, people are no longer easily led or tricked.”
Indeed, despite being bound into the political system, many tribes in these areas stood with the demonstrators during the uprisings, and provided material support in the form of transport, food, and, above all, protection. As Sheikh Ali Saddoun, tribal affairs adviser to the head of the parliament, explained, “We intervened to stop the security forces from using extreme violence against the protestors. The tribes’ stance is always with the demonstrators if their sons are subjected to killing.”
As such, many tribes in these areas were reluctant to ally themselves too closely or too publicly with political leaders who are held responsible for the events of October 2019. Sheikh Dargham al Maliki of the Beni Malik tribe, who is standing as a candidate, noted that “as sheikhs, we are hesitant to receive certain politicians.” Instead, tribes are positing themselves publicly as the defenders of the people against a corrupt and inept political elite. In al Maliki’s words, “The sheikh is the closest to society. He is in touch with people; he listens to their problems … Politicians only reach out to people at election time and then they disappear.”
Surge of Independents
Perhaps more importantly, Iraq’s new election law, which was passed in December 2019 as a sop to protestors’ demands, has changed dynamics at the local level. This law divides the country into 83 constituencies, a considerable increase from the previous three elections, where Iraq’s 18 governorates were designated as single districts. It also does away with list-based voting, meaning that votes will now go directly to the candidate in each constituency rather than being distributed among parties or electoral lists. Sheikh Jamal Fareed al Hmaidawi, who is standing as an independent candidate in Diwaniya, explained the importance of this: “In the previous elections, the voters used to be with faced with choosing the party. Now they will choose the candidate.”
This change was designed to stop the domination of large parties and blocs, making it easier for smaller parties or independents to obtain seats in the parliament. The new law has indeed opened the door to a surge of independent candidates. This time, 789 independents have put themselves forwards, representing a huge increase on the previous two elections. In the 2014 and 2018 elections combined, only two independent candidates succeeded in winning seats. Although these independents represent a mixture of individuals, including militia leaders and civil society activists, some tribal figures have also thrown their hats into the ring. Some of these are tribal sheikhs, such as al Hmaidawi in Diwaniya or Sheikh Alaa Mahdi al Zubaidi in Baghdad. More often than not, however, they are influential tribal figures and notables, or ajaweed. Some of these figures may have stood in previous elections as part of party lists, but are now opting to go it alone in the hopes that the weight of their tribes, along with the changed public mood, will carry them to the parliament. It is notable that a survey carried out by the Bayan Centre in April 2021 found that 83.3 percent of respondents said they would prefer to vote for an independent candidate who is not affiliated to any political party.
Standing as an independent is not a decision to be taken lightly given that independent candidates are coming under significant intimidation and pressure, often from Shiite militias with links to political parties. But the new circumstances have clearly prompted some tribal elements to take their chance and go it alone nonetheless.
A New Dynamic
This does not mean that there aren’t still sheikhs and tribal figures sticking with tried and tested methods of standing on party platforms. This includes men who are powerful figures in their own right such as al Maliki, who is standing for the State of Law Alliance in Basra, and Sheikh Thaar Mukheef al Kitab of the Jibour tribe, standing for the State of Law Alliance in Babel. However, the dynamic has changed. With candidates now being directly elected by voters in their own local areas, these tribal figures will have a greater say and will not necessarily be the compliant figures they once were. As has occurred at the local level, tribal figures who are elected to local governance structures on party platforms have often ended up representing the interests of their tribe more than those of the parties. Something similar could well take place following these national elections.
Needless to say, there are other complicating factors at play. In some areas, the new constituency boundaries cut through tribal lines, weakening the power of certain clans and tribes, especially the smaller ones. In the 2018 parliamentary elections for example, Basem Khashan, a member of parliament and the brother of the head of the Barkat tribe, received almost 20,000 votes, around one third of which came from his tribe. Under the new law, his tribe has been split between two different constituencies. Thus, although he has nominated himself as an independent in one of these constituencies, he has lost a significant chunk of the tribal vote.
Overall, however, the parties’ grip has been loosened and there is greater scope for tribes to be empowered. As al Hmaidawi put it, “The new law opened space for a more balanced representation. Before, the party was the one that chose the candidate and manipulated the votes and imposed its will. Now, the law allows people to vote for candidates who are the most appropriate for the area.” Or, in the confident opinion of Sheikh Mansour Tamimi from Basra, “Of course when you live in an area, and people like you in that area, and they trust you, and you provide services to them, they will vote for you. I am the closest man to them so they would vote for me.”
This new climate does not mean that the parties have given up trying to woo tribes or that the marriage of convenience between tribes and the parties will disappear. The main blocs know that in large swathes of the country, where their reach is limited, tribal support is still a prerequisite for power, and no party will be able to muster enough seats without getting tribes on board.
However, the smaller constituency map means that tribes will be in a better position to assert themselves vis-à-vis these blocs. While tribes, by their very nature, will never represent a cohesive political force, and while they are not in any position to radically alter the political landscape, this election could serve as an important testing ground for tribes to play a larger and more assertive role in the formal political arena. Indeed while much has been made of how the Sadrists might reshape the political arena through these elections, another subtler change is also taking place that could see tribes emerge as more powerful political players.
This change could mark the beginnings of a challenge to the political monopoly of the factions that have looted the state for at least the past 15 years. However, it is unlikely to advance democracy in Iraq. Tribes are hardly bastions of democracy, and their main goal is to exert greater influence over their own areas and affairs. While many tribal sheikhs may castigate the parties, there is nothing to suggest that, if they emerge as a stronger political force, they won’t also seek to use the state as a vehicle to advance their own interests.
Alison Pargeter is a senior research associate at the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London and a senior research associate at the Royal United Services Institute. She has written
widely on North Africa and the Middle East, with a particular focus on Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Egypt.