The forthcoming elections in Iraq furnish a portrait of an Arab country that has no equivalent in most of the country’s Arab neighbours, which are plagued by instability and disintegration.
To both the government and the Iraqi electorate, these elections mean above all progress towards a redefinition of the political terrain in the country after the liberation of those parts that had been occupied by the Islamic State (IS) group, especially the Mosul Province, and the end of the Iraqi Kurdish dream to establish an independent state in the north.
Judging by what is visible so far, the post-election terrain will establish a pluralist order within a predominantly Shia frame-of-reference, while acknowledging two major realities.
The first is the existence of other ethnic and religious political forces, such as Sunni Arabs, Sunni and non-Sunni Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities such as the Yazidis, some of them enjoying constitutional safeguards.
The latter mean that these groups must be represented in the Iraqi parliament and/or in the government hierarchy, as the Iraqi president must be a Kurd, the speaker of the parliament a Sunni Arab, and the prime minister a Shia.
The recognition of this plurality should bolster the unity and stability of the Iraqi state.
The second reality likely to emerge after the elections is that there will no longer be a wall between the Iraqi political groups that precludes alliances based on political outlooks rather than ethnic and religious affiliations.
Acknowledging this will encourage the political forces to work together and forge coalitions to promote policies that should enhance the ability of the new governmental system in Iraq to mature.
This system began to take shape 15 years ago with the creation of the Iraqi Governing Council under the supervision of US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer.
The Islamic Daawa Party, founded in 1957, became the chief incubator of the Iraqi Shia political movements and the generator of the political alignments that have had the greatest influence in shaping the political map in Iraq since the beginning of the constitutional era following the fall of former president Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion.
However, closer inspection of the Shia political map reveals significant intersections, especially in the light of the growing strength of the independently-minded Sadrist Movement, the emergent Badr Organisation as a political and military entity headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, and the continued influence of the party that now calls itself the Hikma (Wisdom) Movement after the dissolution of the Supreme Islamic Council headed by Ammar Al-Hakim.
The Sunni Arab community in Iraq has sustained its relative strength despite major losses during recent years. Many of these were the product of IS control of a large number of predominantly Sunni districts in the “Sunni heartland” of the country, where Sunni Arab political organisations had their primary grassroots bases.
This part of the Iraqi political map will likely see major challenges in the forthcoming parliamentary elections due to various factors.
First, the resettlement of displaced persons returning to their homes, especially in the Mosul and Saladin Provinces, will affect the elections and impact on campaigning efforts and the ability to forge a cohesive platform that can persuade voters to vote for representatives of the Sunni Arab political organisations.
Second, the fragmentation of the infrastructure of this community will lead the Sunni Arab community to dissolve into disparate and highly fluid electoral blocs, in contrast to the Shia political community in which the Islamic Daawa Party serves as the organisational backbone and the Shia frame-of-reference as a unifying ideological safeguard against fragmentation.
Third, the trend that Sunni Arab political figures and blocs have joined Shia-led political coalitions, such as Khaled Al-Obeidi (and his bloc) joining the coalition led by Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, will continue, and the Shia electoral blocs are likely to continue to open their doors to Sunni Arab political leaders.
Fourth, Iraqi public opinion has been negatively affected by Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions, especially in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, and this will have an impact on Sunni Arab electoral prospects in the forthcoming Iraqi elections.
While Riyadh has attempted to build bridges through diplomatic, commercial and political channels with Baghdad, Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr’s visit to Riyadh last year was a failure and Saudi bridge-building with Iraq is floundering.
Public opinion in Iraq is focused on the country’s reconstruction and development in the areas liberated from IS and in the country as a whole, while purging it of political, financial and bureaucratic corruption.
The latter has been placed at the forefront of the elections by the Sadrist Movement, and these issues are likely to play an important role in how voters cast their ballots, even if political allegiances will remain the primary determinant of voting patterns.
The Iraqi elections also affect and are affected by the regional situation. In view of the conditions in the region, the fact that Iraq has held elections regularly since the drafting of the post-2003 constitution is a sign of stability despite the hardships the country has faced.
This year the elections will be held on time in spite of difficulties, showing the determination of all the political groups to uphold the political order and give it the strength to succeed.
The elections should also give new impetus to the country’s political development, enabling Iraq to play a more active role in the region. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry, and the government as a whole, will be better positioned to draw up a new Iraqi foreign policy towards the rest of the Arab world.
There is also the question of the future of Iraqi-Iranian relations during the next five years at least. These have evolved rapidly into deeper, broader and more diverse areas since 2003, and economic cooperation between Tehran and Baghdad has notably expanded with the movement of goods, capital and persons between the two countries serving the welfare of both.
The Iranian political leadership regards Iraq as its “Arab depth” in the country’s foreign policy, and Tehran believes that the success of its foreign policy depends on there being a major Arab component within the Iranian sphere of influence. This component is Iraq.
The Iranian regime’s quest for influence in the Arab world began after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 through the Palestinian cause and the establishment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force.
This recruited fighters from all the Arab countries, allowing it to build an extensive network, especially among the Ansar Allah (Houthi) Movement in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon. The influence of this is clearly apparent in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine today.
Iran also established the Badr Brigade from Iraqis who had fled the Saddam regime to Iran. When US forces entered Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi-Iranian border collapsed, enabling Badr Brigade fighters to flow into Iraq and take part in the purges of the former ruling Baathist Party leaders as well as of military officers who had taken part in Saddam’s earlier war against Iran.
The Badr Brigade eventually evolved into the Badr Organisation, which is now participating in the political process in Iraq. It also serves as the backbone for the Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces). All the Arab governments are aware of the close relations that exist between Iran and Iraq.
The forthcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq are also likely to increase Baghdad’s activity in the Gulf, especially vis-à-vis Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The increased political stability in Iraq after the elections, especially in the light of the liberation of Iraqi territory from IS and the normalisation of relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, should give Iraq’s foreign more scope and flexibility.
The question of the Gulf’s contribution to Iraq’s reconstruction and development will be a major issue in Iraqi-Gulf dialogue over the next few years.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly