A renewed opportunity for a US role in Iraq

The upcoming Iraqi parliamentary election slated for May 12 is significant for many reasons, most notable are the changes to Iraq’s traditional electoral lists. Although these lists are still largely composed along ethno-sectarian lines—whether Shia, Sunni, or Kurdish—differences over policies figure more prominently, with a shift away from an exclusive focus on identity present in previous elections. This change offers the United States a significant opportunity to play an engaged role in post-election negotiations, and to serve as a counterweight to Iranian influence in the country.

Although this disintegration began in earlier elections—different lists ran separately only to merge into grand ethno-sectarian coalitions after the election—it is now more pronounced and more policy-informed. Part of this shift in attitude from identity to policy is spurred on by several Arab lists—both Sunni and Shia—fielding candidates in Kurdish areas, and by Shia lists more assertively doing the same in Sunni areas. Iraqi voters are also paying attention to more than just identity, with a focus on past performance, policy positions, (anti)-corruption records, and governance issues.

Who are the main contenders?

Voters will go to the ballot box with a choice of at least twelve major lists across sectarian groups.

There are five Shia coalitions competing in the 2018 elections, the real competition will be among three lists divided along ideological positions.

Prime Minister Haider al-Ibadi’s Victory and Reconstruction list is the likely front-runner, riding on a record of moderation, defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), sectarian de-escalation, and bringing a much-needed sense of normalcy to the street. On the other end of the Shia spectrum is the radical, anti-US, pro-Iran Conquering list cashing in on the popularity of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) among conservative and identity-driven Shias. In the middle is the surprising activist, nationalist, and pro-reform Marching Forward list of Sadrists and seculars who together championed the anti-corruption protest movement led by Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Disintegration is evident on the Kurdish side too, with four main lists competing for Kurdish votes. The Gorran Movement for Change and the new Coalition for Democracy and Justice, headed by Former Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Barham Salih, are running a unified list—The Homeland—in the disputed territories and separate ones inside the KRG.

Running on an anticorruption and good governance platform, they are hoping to capitalize on voter disenchantment with the dismal ruling record of incumbent parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). That being said, the KDP and PUK should not be counted out as each leads its own lists. Their reliance on party loyalty, historical pride, and nationalist credentials may not win them as many votes as in the past, but their powerful patronage systems still make them—the KDP in particular—serious contenders. The two parties continue to control resources and the official electoral bodies responsible for tallying votes in the region, and their money and influence will likely yield some electoral gains.

Among Sunnis, there is more reshuffling within three main lists than disintegration across electoral alliances. The conservative Mutahadoon list headed by former parliamentary speaker, Usama Nujaifi, is running against the secular, nationalist, and relatively cross-sectarian coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s Watanya. The locally-oriented and tribal-leaning, but well-connected al-Hal alliance has no clear ideological identity, and is ready to play the part of the ‘loyal opposition’ should failure ensue. In its usual pursuit of government contracts and patronage, al-Hal is likely to side with the winner forming the government.

Over the past four difficult years in Iraq, politics have changed, with sect and ethnicity no longer the powerful rallying cry they used to be. Important issues of governance, reform, foreign policy, and the identity of the state have come to the fore to define political engagements and positions. These issues produced a protest movement with wide national appeal and is represented in this election through the Sadrist list. But appeal does not always translate into votes.

What role should the US play in Iraq’s elections?

There is not much for the United States to do during the pre-election period beyond working to ensure the vote is transparent by supporting the new electronic voting system Iraqis will use for the first time. The system is expected to help eliminate electoral fraud, and if effective could help restore voter confidence in a political process increasingly discredited in the view of ordinary Iraqis.

The Higher Electoral commission (HEC), a quasi-independent group made up of party members, will supervise the new system. While insufficient, the presence of major competing parties in the HEC can provide a modicum of checks and balances against other parties trying to tamper with results. That said, the HEC is under more political and public scrutiny this year, and the United States, together with the international community, can play that key supervisory role. The US should stiffen the Iraqi government’s resolve to carry through with the electronic tallying in the face of politicians calling for a manual tally, where the possibility of manipulating the results are far greater.

The United States has much to do in the post-election wrangling period to help forge a meaningful ruling alliance that can build on the hard-won gains of the past four years. These elections are unlikely to produce a clear winner, so post-election negotiations will be decisive in shaping the new government and its priorities.

The current US administration should help the victors form a governing alliance made up of a large coalition of Iraq-first, state-building, reform-minded lists. This can include Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish lists whose policy positions are similar. Such a government will be the best Iraqi counterweight to Iran’s rising influence, which will serve US national interests and, hopefully, encourage the administration to invest in Iraq politically, moving beyond its current narrow security interest.

The US decision to shutter its command headquarters overseeing ground forces in Iraq, although premature and unwise, will not significantly reduce US influence or military presence in the country. One sobering lesson of the difficult ISIS experience is a growing realization among the Iraqi public and much of the political class about the importance of having the US as an ally despite a customary anti-US sentiment. This new Iraqi pragmatism is leverage that should not be squandered or ignored.

The US decision to disengage in Iraq, beginning in late 2010, was a mistake. The United States should help its Iraqi allies form a governing coalition with a serious reform agenda that includes tackling corruption, attracting foreign investment, professionalizing the security forces, overhauling the judiciary and strengthening ethno-sectarian reconciliation. This investment in individuals and issues should be coupled with a clear and firm assertion about US redlines regarding a pro-Iran government or prime minister.

With the absence of reliable pre-election polls, it is difficult to predict winners, but educated guesses suggest that nationalist, secular-leaning, and reform-based lists will fare better than old-guard ethno-sectarian lists. Indeed, a ruling Sunni-Shia-Kurdish coalition, based on programs not ethno-sectarian identities is a real possibility this time. The United States should invest in this possibility.

For this to materialize, the United States needs to have the pragmatic patience that Iran has in Iraq. It is the detail-oriented perseverance of knocking at all doors, locating possibilities, bringing reform-minded players together around policies the United States is sympathetic to, and, when necessary, using its national clout to shape results accordingly.The United States still has a lot of clout in Iraq that it can use to help produce results favorable to a majority of Iraqis and to its own interests in Iraq. The United States needs to learn the Iranian lesson in Iraq: engagement is the key to success.

The United States still has a lot of clout in Iraq that it can use to help produce results favorable to a majority of Iraqis and to its own interests in Iraq. The United States needs to learn the Iranian lesson in Iraq: engagement is the key to success.

Akeel Abbas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. He also worked for several years as a journalist covering Iraq and the Middle East