Iraq’s elections emphasize the sectarian divisions in Iraqi society

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It was more like a numbers contest than a vote to choose a common political future for an anguished nation. Members of Iraq’s diverse communities turned out in large numbers on December 15 to elect their representatives for a four-year parliament. But instead of voting for political platforms that would foster unity and reconciliation, most Iraqis voted for lists representing their own communities. Because Shi’ite Arabs voted largely for a Shi’ite list, Sunni Arabs for a Sunni list and Kurds for a Kurdish list, the widening rifts separating Iraqis along sectarian and ethnic faultlines seem wider than ever; the country seems to be inching ever closer to the precipice of disintegration.

Official or definitive election results had not been released when Crescent went to press, but preliminary results point to some clear trends. Despite US president George W. Bush’s portrayal of the election as a sign of success for US policies in Iraq, it brought into sharp focus the fact that the US government’s hopes of establishing a secular pro-western democracy in Iraq have also been shattered by the rising tide of sectarian passions and prejudices. Preliminary results show that the predominantly Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list, composed of a potpourri of Shi’ite parties, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, led by Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim) and the Da’wah party (led by prime minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari), has won about 58 percent of the vote in Baghdad and gained complete victory in the southern provinces of Iraq. The predominantly Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF), composed of the three main Sunni groups –” the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP, led by Tareq al-Hashemi), the People of Iraq Conference (PIC, led by Adnan al-Dulaymi), and the National Dialogue Assembly (NDA, led by tribal leader Shaykh Khalaf al-‘Ulayyan) –” won large majorities in Sunni provinces to the west and north of Baghdad. The Kurdish list, comprised of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud al-Barazani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by president Jalal Talebani, along with other smaller groups, won most Kurdish votes.

By winning a dominating bloc in parliament, the UIA neutralised Washington’s efforts to sideline Islamic-oriented groups. In fact, the secular coalition backed by the US and Britain and headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi National list, won a paltry 14 percent of the votes in Baghdad, whereas the list led by Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon’s favourite, was defeated even more humiliatingly, winning less than 1 percent of the vote in Baghdad, according to the preliminary results.

But the Iraqis’ preference for voting for religiously inclined parties is not an indication of a healthy Islamic political activism: instead it is fraught with all the pitfalls of communal exclusivism. Ethno-sectarianism fosters divisions based on ethnic or sectarian identity within the ranks of the Ummah, rather than intra-community bonding and cross-community cooperation. All the parties that did well in the Iraqi election command strong loyalties only within their communities; they won almost no votes from other communities. Apart from campaign posters, banners and graffiti full of largely meaningless slogans of patriotism, campaigning was mainly focused on bringing people out to vote for sect, ethnic group or tribe.

Worse still, ethno-sectarianism in Iraq has all the ingredients of civil strife. It is laden with historical hatreds and inter-communal violence that could turn out to be the first stirrings of civil war. Suicide bombings against Shi’ite mosques and husayniyyahs and attacks and murders targeting Shi’ite and Kurdish civilians in predominantly Sunni areas, on the one hand, and the use of death squads and security forces to torture or kill Sunni Arabs suspected of affiliation with the insurgency, on the other, may well presage impending civil war. Byan Baqer Solagh, the interior minister, a leading member of SCIRI, is accused of operating death squads and torture centres whose victims are mainly Sunni Arabs; salafist groups have boasted about attacks on Iraqi Shi’ites.

The high turnout of Sunni Arabs in the election was remarkable, especially compared to their low participation in previous balloting. For instance, turnout in the election on January 30, 2005, in the predominantly Sunni Arab al-Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad, was only 2 percent of registered voters and rose to 32 percent in the constitutional referendum on October 15. In this election, turnout was so high that voting was extended for an hour because of long queues at polling centres. Even outside Iraq, Sunni Arabs flocked to polling centres set up in 15 countries throughout the world. In many cases, Sunni Arabs living in countries where no polling centres were set up for expatriate Iraqis encouraged their communities to cast their ballots in polling centres in neighbouring countries; some of them even organized chartered planes and buses to transport voters to the polling stations. The large Sunni Arab turnout was a kind of ‘political atonement’. They largely sat out the previous elections and later came to regard their boycott as a mistake.

Sunni Arab and secular leaders are angered by the UIA’s seeming victory. On December 22, some 35 parties rejected partial results showing another electoral triumph for the Shi’ites, who have been systematically translating their numerical advantage into political power since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Expressions of dismay and claims of fraud filled the political atmosphere in Iraq. Some 1,500 complaints, ranging from voting centres failing to open and shortages of election material to reports of multiple voting, were registered with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI). Dulaymi of the IAF called on the IECI to conduct a rerun at polling centres where irregularities were registered. However, IECI officials were quick to assert that complaints would be investigated, but no reruns would be held. Craig Jenness, the UN advisor to Iraq’s election commission, weighed into the debate by saying that there is no reason to rerun the elections and that the complaints are “not significant”.

In some ways, anti-UIA carping is the natural expression of partisan resentment at losing in an election. About 7,000 candidates competed in the election for 275 seats in parliament. Expressions of dissatisfaction on the part of the thousands of losers are all too normal. More importantly, calls for new elections on the part of the Sunni Arab leaders reflected resentment of their community’s diminished political status since the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime. The fact is that no matter how high the Sunni Arabs’ turnout is, in any Iraqi election held along sectarian lines they are going to be outvoted. Sunni Arabs comprise some 20 percent of the Iraq’s population of 26 million, and have enjoyed political supremacy and privileges throughout Iraq’s modern history. It is difficult for many members of this community to reconcile themselves to a lesser role in the affairs of the country after decades of holding the reins of power.

The election has been billed by the US government as a necessary step to undercut support for the escalating resistance to the occupation. The US hopes that the entrance of the Sunni Arabs, who form the backbone of the insurgency in Iraq, into the political process will translate into a diminution in insurgent activity. All the indications suggest otherwise, however. For one thing, insurgent groups (with the exception of fringe salafist groups) have encouraged the Sunni Arab population to vote in the recent election, seeing in the vote another political front within their overall strategy. Moreover, increased Sunni Arab participation at the ballot-box reflects a desire to roll back the very political process the polls are designed to promote. For instance, in the constitutional referendum held on October 15, 2005, the vast majority of Sunni Arabs who cast their votes voted against the constitution.

Now that parliamentary elections have been held, the Iraqi political scene faces a grim test in the coming months: the test of forming a government. Some three months of hard and bitter bargaining ensued after the election of an interim National Assembly in January 2005, before the UIA and the Kurds managed to overcome differences and form a coalition government. The experience left Kurdish leaders dissatisfied with the way the government works. Although it is unlikely that this dissatisfaction will prompt Kurdish leaders to break their alliance with Shi’ite leaders, it is likely that the Kurds will now try to reduce Shi’ite control of the levers of power by bringing in more Sunni Arab or secular ministers to any new coalition government.

Yet forming a coalition government will not put an end Iraq’s increasing political difficulties. The new government faces the monumental challenge of resolving the debate on amendments to the constitutional draft. These amendments must be approved in the new parliament and by a popular referendum. It is highly unlikely that the Shi’ites and the Kurds will agree to amend the most objectionable clauses of the constitution from the Sunni Arab point of view, viz. articles 111 to 123 relating to federalism.

The impending heated constitutional debate will open the door wide to more American interference in the political process. The Sunni Arabs might find themselves, as they have in the past months, leaning on the US to extract concessions from the Shi’ites. This is especially ironic considering how fiercely anti-American the Sunni Arabs have been in Iraq so far.

The size of the Sunni Arab bloc in the new parliament is not likely to be large enough to alter the constitution when the next legislature sits. Allawi’s bloc represents their best hope to strike an alliance in parliament. Even then, it is virtually impossible that such an alliance will be able to muster enough votes to change the constitution. With many parties having their own armed militias or links with insurgent groups, the danger is real of political disputes turning into armed confrontations. It is such nightmarish scenarios that cause fears that, instead of restoring social cohesion, the political process is about to pull Iraq apart at the seams.

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