Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Iraq's Elections - What To Look For And Why It's Important


It's purple fingers time again in Iraq, and the voters are going to the polls in spite of bombing attacks by the usual suspects that killed 38 people, mostly in Baghdad.

More than 6,000 candidates from different parties and coalitions competed in the parliamentary elections. Turnout was estimated at 62 percent, which shows that some of the novelty has worn off but that Iraqis still cherish the idea of voting. Most importantly, Sunni participation was well up from the '05 elections, a sign of stability.

No one party or faction is expected to win an outright majority, and the horse trading and dealing involved in building a coalition to form a new government could take months. The overall results might not be announced until later on this week.

325 seats in the new parliament are up for grabs, and of course, the Prime Minister's chair, currently held by Nouri al-Maliki, who's running for re-election.

The four main players are the State of Law Party (Maliki, his Da’wa faction and their allies); The Iraqia List ( an alliance of secular Shi'ites and Sunni, composed of ex-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Sunni politico Tariq Hashimi); The Iraqi National Alliance (al-Sadr and the Iranian backed factions); and the Kurdistan Alliance.

Both Maliki and Allawi are expected to take about 100 seats apiece. Both campaigned on a nationalist platform that involved pushing the Americans to leave Iraq sooner, but the reality is that the security situation is still shaky enough that neither faction is likely to push for a quicker US withdrawal, in spite of President Obama's hopeful remarks on the subject.

The ethnic politics involved are very reminiscent of Lebanon - a large Shi'ite faction, much of it with heavy ties to Iran, a Sunni faction and the Kurds taking the place of the Druse and Maronite Christians.

There are thus three separate factions vying for the Shi'ite vote - Maliki's, Allawi's and the Iranian supported Iraqi National Alliance. If Maliki and Allawi essentially tie, the election will end up going to whomever can make the best deal with the Kurds and the Iraqi National Alliance to get to a majority of at least 163 seats.

If Maliki becomes the front-runner, I wouldn't be surprised to see him bring the pro-Iran Iraqi National Alliance and perhaps the Kurds to unite with his State of Law faction and form a coalition government that shuts out Allawi and some of the other players. That's especially likely if Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gets involved to make sure that Shiites stay united and that a more secular candidate like Allawi doesn't take the government.

If Allawi gets more seats, the Kurds will again be on board as well as some of the smaller players. That would likely be a setback for Iran, who is seeking to Lebanize Iraq and make it a colony.

Stay tuned...

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