Iraq’s provincial elections on 1 February confirmed the picture that the Maliki government is gaining strength, though also the fact that the foundations of that strength are fragile.
Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party did best in the elections. Maliki used the occasion to rebuff the new US vice-president Joe Biden, who had called for more US pressure on the Iraqi government for political reform. “The time for [US] pressure is past”, declared Maliki, who last year negotiated a deal under which US troops are supposed to quit Iraq’s cities by June this year, and the whole country by 2011.
Dawa is the “original” Shia-Islamist party of Iraq, going back to the clerical-conservative reaction to the first large emergence of the Iraqi labour movement in 1958-63. Dawa’s longstanding government and election-coalition partner, ISCI, did badly in the provincial elections.
ISCI is a later offshoot. It originated in exile, after 1980, under Iranian government sponsorship, although Iran’s ties to Dawa now seem as strong as to ISCI, and it was an ISCI candidate whom the US unsuccessfully backed for prime minister against Maliki after the December 2005 elections in Iraq. Under Maliki, Iran-Iraq trade has grown from $1.8 billion in 2006 to $4 billion in 2008, and a major conference of the two governments on strengthening economic ties opened on 11 February in Baghdad.
In Baghdad, Dawa got 38% of the vote this time (31% in 2005); ISCI got 5% (55% in 2005). In Basra, Dawa went up from 7% to 37%, ISCI went down from 49% to 12%.
A Dawa splinter led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, prime minister before Maliki, did fairly well in some areas. The Sadrist movement, Shia Islamists with a more militant popular base and more strident anti-American rhetoric, did poorly, going down from 36% to 15% in Maysan, which they previously dominated, and scoring 9% in Baghdad and 5% in Basra. Fadhila, another more popular-based Shia Islamist party, which has played a large part since 2003 in Basra politics, got only 3% there.
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq did not contest the elections. The very tame Communist Party of Iraq took part in some coalition slates which got small scores (1% in Baghdad, for example).
Dawa’s campaign downplayed religion and stressed Iraqi nationalism, national unity, and the Maliki’s government’s claims to provide a stable "State of Law". ISCI’s campaign stressed religion and pushed the policy which has long differentiated ISCI from Dawa (and made ISCI an ally of the relatively secular Kurdish warlord parties): a conversion of Iraq into a loose federation of super-regions.
The election result suggests what opinion surveys have also indicated, that most Iraqis, most Arab Iraqis anyway, do not want regionalism and would prefer an only moderately Islamist government.
Dawa got the biggest vote in nine regions. In five regions, mostly Sunni, the picture was complicated. In Anbar province (very heavily Sunni) there are allegations of vote-rigging by the “Awakening Councils” (former Sunni “resistance” groups which in 2007 were persuaded to switch to operating under US pay) against the Iraqi Islamic Party (Iraqi offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a party which has been in most of the governments and councils since 2003).
The vote was very scattered: although Dawa was the biggest party in nine regions, in several of those its vote was only 10 to 20%. The process of forming coalitions to run provincial governments will be long and complicated. The relative stabilisation in Iraq is still fragile, and any one of a number of tensions could quickly take things back to the effective civil war of 2006 and early 2007.
Part of the reason for the scattering of the vote was the presence of very large numbers of independent candidates who could identify themselves publicly. In previous elections Iraqis have voted for party lists, with all but a few candidates’ identities kept secret for fear of assassination.
The strengthening of Maliki’s government suggests a shift towards Arab-Kurdish tension becoming a bigger factor in Iraq, instead of the alignment of Shia-Islamists with Kurdish parties in opposition to Sunni groups which has prevailed most of the time since 2003. In some recent parliamentary disputes, Maliki’s Dawa has sided with opposition parties against ISCI and the Kurdish parties.
The provincial elections did not happen in the three Kurdish provinces and in Kirkuk, an area hotly disputed between Arabs and Kurds. There are many brakes on the development of Arab-Kurdish conflict - Maliki’s government includes the Kurdish parties, a Kurdish leader is president, and the most reliable units of the Iraqi army are Kurdish — but Maliki seems to want to push as far as he can to curb the Kurdistan Regional Government’s quasi-independence, and its effective autonomous control over Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil resources.
The relative strengthening of the Maliki government, and the step towards something like regular politics (as distinct from communal headcounting) represented by the provincial elections, have their positive side in a more assertive attitude towards the Americans.
But a stronger Maliki government is also likely to feel stronger against the Iraqi labour movement, against which it still has on the books Saddam’s anti-union laws and Decree 8750 of 2005, authorising the government to confiscate union funds.
A protest in Basra by the oil union at the end of January led to the government sending in the army and arresting four union leaders to interrogate them.
The future of Iraq may now depend on a race between the Iraqi labour movement — to which the relative stabilisation gives somewhat better conditions to organise — and the "hardening" of the Maliki government. The international labour conference called in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) for 13-14 March by a number of Iraqi trade unionists will be an important focus for planning how Iraqi workers can get a part in shaping the future of the country.