Iraq's Elections: What Washington Must Do

Washington still maintains influence in Baghdad.

Today, Iraq holds its most important elections since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The elections could mark a fresh start for Iraq, or could plunge the country deeper into dysfunction and conflict. The likely outcome of the elections—that no single party will win enough seats to form a new government—provides the United States with an opportunity to engage Iraq’s leaders and catalyze an agreement on a program of reform that results in greater stability and advances U.S. interests in the region.

Vital American interests are at stake. Iraq stands at the nexus of the central conflict defining the Middle East: the clash between Shias, led by Iran, and the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Tensions in Iraq are part of this broader sectarian clash, which, left unchecked, could merge into the civil war in neighboring Syria and fan extremist threats against the United States’ security interests in the region and beyond.

The most important question in the election is whether incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will win a third term. Maliki showed signs of a genuine democratic leader during his first term. He cracked down on extremists regardless of their sectarian affiliations and advanced a unifying, nationalist vision for Iraq, vowing that sectarianism was a transitional phenomenon that would be replaced by equal citizenship before the law. Due in large part to Maliki’s efforts, violence decreased and nonsectarian and cross-sectarian parties gained in the 2010 elections.

Events in recent years, however, have pushed Maliki in an authoritarian and sectarian direction. Amid a resurgence of violence from Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents, Maliki has responded to pressure from his Shia base by arresting a number of Sunni politicians, who broke with extremists to join the political process. Maliki has also roiled relations with the Kurds by denying required budget allocation from the central government to the Kurdish regional government.

Maliki has taken these steps against the backdrop of volatile regional dynamics. The raging war-next-door in Syria has drawn Iraq’s communities to different sides of the conflict. Iraqis are being pulled apart as regional powers fill the vacuum left by the premature U.S. withdrawal of forces from Iraq in 2011.

Current projections suggest that one of three scenarios is likely to emerge from the elections.

Maliki’s State of Law coalition could win upward of one hundred of the parliament’s 328 seats. Maliki could then form a majority government with token representation from smaller Sunni and Kurdish parties. Unless Maliki subsequently returned to the inclusive approach of his first-term, Sunni-Shia tensions would escalate and the Kurds would push for greater autonomy and sovereignty. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria would become even more intertwined and external powers supporting warring factions would be pulled deeper into the fire.

More likely is an outcome in which State of Law wins between sixty and ninety seats. Maliki would enjoy greater support than any other individual Shia parties—such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Ahrar bloc or the Islamic Supreme Council, led by Ammar al-Hakim—but would not have a decisive edge over his rivals. Encouraged by the Prime Minister’s lackluster performance, a coalition of rival Shia, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish parties would band together behind their own candidate for the premiership. Replacing Maliki would be difficult. Iran has consistently opposed a fracturing of Shia unity. And there are serious questions regarding the opposition’s ability to reach consensus on a candidate, government program, and power-sharing formula. Yet the strong desire of these parties for a new Prime Minister, and the imperative of tempering Sunni-Shia hostilities and Kurdish moves toward sovereignty, may be enough to make this a credible scenario. Indeed, influential Shia clerics are forcefully calling for change. Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi—one of Iraq’s four most senior Ayatollahs—has issued a fatwa against voting for Maliki, comparing him to Saddam Hussein, and endorsing Ammar al-Hakim instead. Maliki will face much stiffer resistance than he did in 2010.

Prolonged stalemate is the third scenario. Maliki’s coalition may win just enough seats to prevail over other Shia parties and block rival efforts to nominate an alternative Prime Ministerial candidate. If neither side succeeds in tipping the balance in its favor, Iraq could face a period of political deadlock in which Maliki leads a caretaker government. If the anti-Maliki camp remains unified, Maliki may decide, after a protracted period, to let another candidate form the government. As a condition for stepping down, Maliki is likely to insist that the new Prime Minister come from the ranks of his Da’wa Party.