Iraq's Stability Hangs in the Upcoming Election

And the fragmentation of Iraq's political parties isn't helping.

The April 30 parliamentary elections in Iraq will go a long way toward determining the future of the country and of U.S. involvement in the region. Al-Maliki’s third term as prime minister is at stake, but so are the relationships between the governing structures of the country (namely, between the government in Baghdad and Iraq’s increasingly restive provinces).

The United States abandoned long ago the idea of building a democratic state in Iraq, but it still wants the country to remain united. As a result, Washington takes a cautious, lukewarm position toward the largely autonomous Kurdistan region and is suspicious of more autonomy for other provinces.

But in Iraq, the tension between the central government in Iraq and provincial authorities is growing. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s central government has strengthened considerably and so has al-Maliki’s role within it. Immediately after the U.S. intervention, the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the disbanding of both his army and party, Iraq was left with a weak center. The United States worried that the 2005 constitution would add to the problem. Under pressure from Kurd representatives, the constitution granted a large degree of autonomy to Kurdistan, limiting the power of the central government. It also recognized the right of other provinces to transform themselves into autonomous provinces. Had all provinces done so, Iraq would have turned into an extremely decentralized federal system, verging on a confederation. Indeed, some, including then Senator and now Vice President Joe Biden started talking of a forthcoming soft-partition of Iraq.

The choice of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister in the wake of the January 2006 elections seemed to confirm this trend. Al-Maliki was the compromise candidate of the squabbling parties, chosen because he appeared to have no independent power base. U.S. officials worried about the consequences for Iraq of a politically weak prime minister presiding over an institutionally weak central government.

Forward to 2014 and Iraq again faces the possibility of fragmentation and the need to redefine the relationship between Baghdad and regions or provinces, but for different reasons. Al-Maliki has cast himself as Iraq’s new strong man, seeking to tighten his control over the central government and Baghdad’s control over the provinces. He does not see himself presiding over a weak federation. Although all provinces have elected councils that on paper enjoy considerable power, al-Maliki is striving to keep political and financial control in Baghdad. Many provinces are pushing back. At least seven provincial councils outside Kurdistan have voted in favor of turning their province into an autonomous region. Al-Maliki is resisting, and discontent is mounting. Sunni-majority Anbar, where citizens protested against Baghdad’s action for months and where radical Islamist groups now control much of the two largest cities, is not the only province that demands change. All Sunni-majority provinces, but also a number of important, oil-producing Shia ones such as Basra, want to redefine their relationship with Baghdad. And Kurdistan is pushing the limits of its autonomy. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, the constitution gives it the right to sign contracts with oil companies and even to export hydrocarbons independently of Baghdad, as long as it pays the central government 83 percent of the revenue. With production of both oil and gas increasing rapidly in Kurdistan, a new oil pipeline connecting Kurdistan oil fields directly to Turkey, and additional pipelines to Turkey being planned, relations between Baghdad and Erbil are hurtling toward a crisis.

Elections results are crucial to the outcome of this conflict. Al-Maliki and those around him embrace the concept of a centralized state led by a powerful government, and if their State of Law Coalition gets enough votes to lead the new government, they will continue to follow present policies. Faced with a dramatic resurgence of sectarian violence, al-Maliki seems to see force as the only solution. While strong security measures are undoubtedly needed, the government is doing nothing to address political grievances that contribute to the crisis. The take-over of Anbar’s major towns by armed radicals occurred in the wake of a decision by al-Maliki to break up and disperse protest camps set up by vocal but nonviolent groups challenging his actions.

Election Dynamics

The conditions under which the 2014 parliamentary elections are taking place differ greatly from those prevailing in 2010. Iraq was largely peaceful then, thanks to the presence of over 100,000 U.S. troops. Elections in the provinces had taken place a year earlier, but the councils were still uncertain of their position and not openly challenging the central government. Kurdistan was already at loggerheads with Baghdad over the signing of oil contracts, but it was not producing oil or gas in substantial amounts yet, and thus was totally dependent on transfers from Baghdad for its budget.