Silverman: Iraqi Electoral Law Passes but Dangers Loom

Adam L. Silverman writes in a guest op-ed for Informed Comment:

Politics and Politicking: Iraqi Elections, the Failure of Reconciliation, and the Consolidation of Power

Adam L. Silverman, PhD[1]

The politics surrounding Iraq’s national election law is eerily reminiscent of the Faulkner quote that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”. While the Iraqi Parliament has finally passed an election law for the 2010 parliamentary (national) elections[2], the extended impasse over the measure[3] is a replay of the events that preceded the provincial elections in the late Summer and Fall of 2008. At that time Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in conjunction with Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, vetoed the provincial election law.[4] The veto was issued concerning the status of Kirkuk, the city that was one of the major grievances between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, as well as the proposed format for the elections. Tensions were so high that the Kurdistan Alliance actually walked out of parliament to prevent a vote, an action that failed and led to the veto.

The entire episode highlighted the unreconciled fault lines and cleavages between the various ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious factions in Iraq. The wrangling clearly demonstrated that Dawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its Badr Corps paramilitary, and the Kurdistan Alliance were trying to consolidate and enhance control to pursue their own agendas.

The most recent holdup, the veto issued by Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi also centered around the fault lines of Kurdish versus Arab and Sunni versus Shi’a. Vice President al Hashimi’s veto appears to have been an attempt to preserve as much political representation, and consequent power, for the Sunni minority as possible. The opposition he and the Sunnis face, the Kurds and the Shi’a Arabs, seek to reallocate the representation to more fully reflect their own higher proportion of the Iraqi population.

The overall problem here, however, is that the Kurds and the Shi’a Arabs, as represented by the Kurdistan Alliance, Dawa, and ISCI, have demonstrated that their views of Iraq are clearly sometimes sectional rather than nationalist: they seek to either a partial or complete de facto secession (the Kurds and Kurdistan, ISCI and Southern Iraq) or–in the case of ISCI and to some extent Dawa– they represent the interests of their Iranian benefactors. Moreover, by consolidating their power through the politics of the election law these parties and the movements they represent are deepening the divide between those that have power and those who are perpetually locked out of power.

Vice President al Hashemi’s November 8th veto and his subsequent threats to issue another veto if his demands for greater Sunni representation were not met created an impasse. The resolution of the stalemate allowed the Sunni minority to achieve slightly greater representation while also providing the Shi’a majority and the Kurds significant enough concessions that everyone could save face and the election could be scheduled.[5] The new election law does, however, push two important grievances farther down the road: talks to resolve the dispute between Arabs and Kurds over Kirkuk and oil and conducting a long overdue census – both of which will supposedly happen next year. The real question that those interested in Iraq need to be focused on at this point is what will the effects of the election, as well as these two other problem sets, have on the fault lines between the various communities in Iraq?

As Nir Rosen has documented the Shi’a have won the dispute with the Sunnis.[6] The Shi’a have won the war for control of political power and resources. Although that dispute has been termed a Sunni/Shi’a Civil War, and has often been incorrectly seen as a purely religious and theological dispute, in fact the two parties sought to stake control of money, water, electrical power, oil, and political power.[7]

The issue, however, is how the Sunnis will respond to ever their ever diminishing influence over Iraq at a national, provincial, and local level. If PM Maliki and his Dawa Party continue to consolidate power in an attempt to further entrench themselves and secure their positions, the Sunnis are likely to respond in very negative ways, despite being heavily outnumbered. Moreover, many rural and more traditional Shi’a are not thrilled with the behavior of Dawa or the second most powerful Shi’a party ISCI. It is important to remember that Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’a, know who escaped and lived in exile (the leaders of Dawa, ISCI, and the Badr Corps) and who did not. Moreover, they are incredibly sensitive to the idea that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs or unduly influencing Iraqi politics.

Many Sunnis, and even the more rural Shia, fear that Iranians will move in and dominate Iraq, or remake the demographic balance. Arab Iraqis are anxious that the Kurds will grab more land and then break away. These tensions will be played out in the elections. If the turnout is high even in Sunni-dominated areas, but Sunnis do not perceive that they have done well, their grievances over representation, resource allocation, and distribution will be inflamed. Similar outcomes will occur if the census is not handled correctly in both its conduct and in selling the idea to Iraqis who are rightfully distrustful of governmental activities, as well as the negotiations regarding Kirkuk and oil.

In order to give all three of these important initiatives a chance to bind up Iraq’s wounds rather than make them worse, three things have to be done and all of the steps taken in this regard have to be very, very transparent.

  • The first is for the US and UN representatives to work closely with the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC)[8] to get a proper format for the election. An Open List/Proportional Representation (OLPR) format was used in the provincial elections of 2009 and while that’s better than a closed list, it has some significant problems of its own, which seemed to have contributed to the electoral irregularities in Anbar Province. In fact the only place that an OLPR system has worked successfully is Switzerland as opposed to Brazil, Indonesia, and Italy, where it has contributed to institutionalized electoral manipulation and corruption. While better than the closed list system used in the 2005 Iraqi elections, OLPR elections contribute to the consolidation of power among those who already have it at the expense of those who do not. Dr. Sam Parker, writing as “Iraqologist,” made this very clear in the run-up to the Iraqi provincial elections.[9] So choosing the right format for the 2010 elections is crucial, as well as properly educating the population about what that format is and what it means in regards to vote tallying and electoral representation.
  • The handling of the census is very similar: it needs to be clearly explained, transparent, and done in a manner that each of the ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious communities do not feel cheated or disenfranchised. The last Iraqi census took place over a decade ago, and a new a census has the potential to destabilize significant portions of Iraq. For instance, funding for many localities is tied to population size, which is, of course a major reason for wanting to do an accurate and up-to-date count. However, if the public relations surrounding the census is not done correctly, and adequate counts are not achieved, then the census will become a casus belli for renewed violence between communities. Moreover, the presentation of this has to be handled in a very professional and delicate manner as many Sunnis, and some Shi’a, are still very angry over how their personal information was handled and used by the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces during the Sons of Iraq transition, as well as at the abuse of the Public Distribution System data during the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other areas. If Iraqis perceive that the census is being done in a partisan or sectarian manner, to further divvy up Iraq’s resources as spoils, then here too there is a chance for increased rather than decreased instability.
  • The management of the issue of Kirkuk and oil is the final piece of the electoral legislation compromise. As is the case with the actual election and the census, the incorrect handling of this issue will go a long way to further destabilizing Iraq as opposed to resolving problems. When out interacting with Iraqis in our Operating Environment my teammates and I often heard from both Sunnis and Shi’a regarding the issue of Kirkuk–even though it is several hundred miles away from where they live. We were usually told that the city had always been Arab, that the Kurds are just trying to steal more oil wealth and land from the Arab Iraqis to solidify Kurdistan, and that if it is given over to the Kurds it will further weaken Iraq, through fragmentation, and strengthen Iran (Iran is a consistent bogey man for many Iraqis. There was a sense of outrage that the Kurds, who already have so much, were trying to take more from the Arabs, and among the Sunni Arabs that they would lose even more opportunities to profit from oil revenue. In order for the Kirkuk talks to lead to progress in Iraq, both sides are going to have to come away with something. Most likely this means greater Kurdish control over Kirkuk with guarantees that Arabs will not be politically disenfranchised or have their potential oil revenue diminished.

    The key to forward movement and progress for Iraqis, whether related to the 2010 elections, the census, or the negotiations of Kirkuk and oil revenue is that those who have lost the most in the reordering of Iraq since the 2003 invasion must not feel as though they are being further disenfranchised. If the Sunnis, who have clearly lost the power struggle, feel as if they are having their noses rubbed in their defeat they are more likely, no matter how futile it might be, to take up arms and seek to reclaim honor and status through the use of force. Additionally, those who feel that the Kurds have gotten too sweet a deal as a result of the remaking of the Iraqi state and society are likely to use force if they perceive that the issues regarding Kirkuk and oil are being manipulated in favor of the Kurds. This final issue, which lies close to the heart of the Arab/Kurdish dispute that now dominates the sectarian landscape in Iraq, has the potential to eclipse the previous violence– since the Iraqi Army is largely divided between Kurdish units (many of which are former Peshmerga) and Arab units (many of which are former Badr Corps).

    [1] Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Lead for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from October 2007 through October 2008. Upon his redeployment from Iraq he then served as the Strategic Communications Advisor for the US Army’s Human Terrain System through 2009. The ideas expressed herein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of HTT IZ6, the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army’s Human Terrain System, or the US Army.








    [9] Parker, Sam (as “Iraqologist”). Not So Open;, 25 SEP 2008

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    One response

    1. .
      I believe this guest op-ed is a fair representation of the contribution made by the Human Terrain System in Iraq.

      However, Dr. Silverman did make two valuable points about Moqtada al-Sadr (without mentioning him by name) and how government institutions aided the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (again without being clear that this was his point.)

      The Human Terrain System, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, may have some really knowledgeable people. But if they cannot influence commanders by helping them understand the consequences of their decisions, of what use are they ?

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