A member of Kurdish the security forces shows his ink-stained fingers after casting an early ballot in Sulaimaniya.
A member of Kurdish the security forces shows his ink-stained fingers after casting an early ballot in Sulaimaniya, April 28, 2014.
Yahya Ahmad / Courtesy Reuters

As Iraq readies for general elections at the end of this month, sectarian tensions hang over the country, just as in elections past. But this time, there is a twist: despite the population’s deep divides, Iraqi politics have refused to play by the old sectarian rules. In fact, most long-standing ethno-sectarian parties have fractured and, in some cases, key political issues are starting to cut across religious identities. As a result, the election will likely have no clear winner, and only the subsequent struggle to form a new cabinet will reveal which way Iraq is really headed in the coming years.

A lot has changed since Iraq’s first post-invasion parliamentary poll in December 2005. Back then, sectarian issues were extremely pronounced: nearly all the major Shiite parties had joined the United Iraqi Alliance, an umbrella group. Kurdish parties, meanwhile, had come together under the Kurdistan Alliance. Sunnis also had a coalition, but a much weaker one. After the elections, the Shiite coalition, which had won big, named Nuri al-Maliki prime minister and granted the Kurdish coalition some key positions to keep it invested in the new government.

In the next elections, in 2010, the party lineup was far less polarized. Ahead of the elections, the Shiite coalition broke down into two distinctive alliances, one headed by Maliki and the other headed by his main Shiite competitors. Simultaneously, Iraqiya -- which had been a distinctively secular party -- joined with many Sunni leaders in a new alternative bloc that looked far less sectarian than the main Sunni list in the previous election.

A few months ahead of elections, though, Shiite hard-liners pushed the question of de-Baathification onto the agenda, which forced Maliki, who had tried to be somewhat secular, to toe a more sectarian line. After the election, as the long process of forming a government began, the major sectarian fronts were formally reconstituted. All the main Shiite parties came together under their old umbrella organization and struck a deal with the Kurds -- who were also unified -- to guarantee support for a second term for Maliki. The United States cajoled the Sunni-secular Iraqiya, which had won the most parliamentary seats, into participating in the government.

Now, ahead of this election, there is even greater sectarian fragmentation than there was in 2010. First, the Shiites have split among those aligned with Maliki; those aligned with Ammar al-Hakim, whose Citizen bloc appeals to the Shiite middle class in particular; and the Sadrists, who run the Freeborns bloc, which represents lower-income Shiites. The same goes for the Sunni-secular camp. What was formerly Iraqiya now consists of three blocs. Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of parliament, controls one; Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy premier, heads another; and Ayad Allawi, the former head of Iraqiya, commands a third. It is noteworthy that despite increased grassroots mobilization among Sunni radical youth, which was spurred by the Syria crisis and a rise in al Qaeda attacks in Iraq, no major Sunni Islamist party is even fielding a candidate on April 30. Instead, the Sunni candidates who do compete are mostly from secular backgrounds.

What is even more astounding is that, for the first time, all the main Kurdish lists are running separately. Such open competition is rare among the Kurds, who have tended to put aside internal differences to maximize their influence in Baghdad. One possible reason for this year’s fragmentation is the persistent stalemate over forming a regional government in Kurdistan following local elections there last year. Another possible reason is that the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party is feeling so secure in its power over its smaller rivals that it is more interested in maximizing its own share of the vote than attending to the Kurdish vote overall.

Some genuinely cross-sectarian alliances will compete in the April 30 elections, as well, but they are few and far between. In addition to Allawi’s traditionally secular bloc (which has shed some of the Sunni sectarian baggage it took on when it joined the grand Sunni coalition in 2010), there is the newly formed “Iraq coalition” of Sunnis and Shiites (list 262) and a group of politicians close to the old communist movement (list 232). How these groups fare may offer the best sign of sectarianism’s influence. Although the collapse of the sectarian fronts may be a precondition for the development of more progressive politics, only parties that cut across sectarian lines will be able to bring about a decisive political transformation in Iraq.

On that front, there are at least a few positive signs. Some of the pre-election debate in Iraq has been healthy -- focused on basic questions about the ideal structure of the Iraqi state rather than on the virtues of belonging to any particular community. For example, this election cycle has seen a rather open discussion about what sort of federalism Iraq should have -- a first in the country’s post-2003 history. In a sense, the credit for that goes to Maliki, who has refused to compromise with the Kurds in an ongoing dispute over oil: the Kurds want greater control of oil produced in Kurdistan, including the ability to export it freely to Turkey. Maliki wants to continue to impose central control over export volumes, revenue distribution, and payment to foreign oil companies operating in the Kurdish areas.

Although the disagreement is sometimes portrayed as a Shiite-Kurd problem, the debate really relates to broader questions about government decentralization. On this matter, Sunnis and Shiites are internally split. For example, some Sunnis, such as al-Nujaifi, have recently moved to back the Kurds in calling for decentralization. Mutlak’s Sunni bloc, by contrast, continues to emphasize the virtues of a strong central government. Similar internal fragmentation on federalism exists among Shiites. In other words, when it comes to the question of federalism, Sunni and Shiite politicians alike will have reason to seek alliances outside their narrow sectarian groups.

Those efforts relate to another election issue: the question of a “political majority government,” a concept associated with the current prime minister, Maliki. Essentially, Maliki advocates for the establishment of a more narrow government that does not have to include every major bloc in parliament. In doing so, he is hoping to create a more effective cabinet that will not be held hostage by the pet issues of sundry coalition partners. Members of Maliki’s bloc have floated the idea of a Sunni Arab as president in the next parliamentary term instead of a Kurd, which has been the norm so far, although the Iraqi constitution does not call for the presidency to be allotted to any particular ethno-religious group.

But whether Maliki can secure the necessary votes for such a change is unclear. So far, the other Shiite parties have voiced skepticism, arguing that it would be reckless to exclude any major group from the cabinet. Sunnis, on whom Maliki also depends if the concept is going to attract enough support and work, have failed to embrace it enthusiastically. At any rate, this appeal for majoritarianism might not end as Maliki expects. For example, after local elections in 2013, Maliki did manage to sideline Sadr and Hakim through political majority–style local governments in some cities, such as Karbala, Babel, and Dhi Qar, where his electoral results were particularly strong and he had close personal relations with some of the other winning blocs. However, his Shiite competitors managed to exclude Maliki in yet other Shiite provinces, such as Wasit. And importantly, those anti-Maliki Shiite forces were also able to build bridges to Sunnis in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, such as Baghdad and Diyala, to form local governments that excluded Maliki while at the same time maintaining healthy cross-sectarian profiles. Given Maliki’s inability to use the “political majority” concept to his own advantage in the Baghdad province in 2013, his ability to use it nationally in 2014 is in doubt.

As debates about federalism and government structure have unfolded, however, there have also been several more odious national conversations, which cast serious doubts about Sunni-Shiite cooperation in Iraq after April 30. Take Maliki’s electoral campaign, which drew on more sectarian and regional themes, including Syria. Nominally, Maliki subscribes to a brand of Iraqi nationalism that is supposed to appeal to his Shiite base and to Sunnis alike. In practice, though, he has been associated with several projects with clear sectarian connotations. Among them is a recent initiative to create a bouquet of new Iraqi provinces in the north of the country that would mainly benefit Shiite minority groups such as the Shabak in Nineveh and Shiite Turkmens in Nineveh and Salahaddin. Second, there is Maliki’s electoral alliance with Shiite hard-liners in the Badr organization (prominent for its military support for the Assad regime in Syria) as well as his looser political alliance with the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, whose activities in Iraq resemble the efforts of Shiite militias that brought Iraq close to civil war in 2006–07.

Maliki has generally failed to build relationships with significant Sunni leaders beyond selected friends; he hasn’t even managed to appeal to enough issues of concern to Sunnis to keep Hajim al-Hassani, once Maliki’s Sunni figurehead, on board. This year, Hassani has joined forces with Nujaifi’s Sunni list.

With so many factions running on so many issues, no single Iraqi list is likely to emerge from the April 30 polls with a majority. Instead, Maliki may try to put together a coalition consisting of his own list and more marginal Sunni and possibly Kurdish politicians. The gambit could work well if it leads to genuine representation of Sunnis and secularists who agree with Maliki on issues such as the structure of the state and questions relating to federalism. But if this majoritarian solution is really an all-Shiite cabinet with a few Sunnis for symbolic inclusion thrown in, it will not be viable. Alternatively, Maliki’s main Shiite competitors will reach out to the major Sunni and Kurdish parties to form an anti-Maliki government. Such a cabinet may more easily achieve a majority in the next Iraqi parliament, but it could also become a dangerous repeat of the oversized and indecisive cabinets of the past, with dangerous consequences for Iraq.

It is impossible to guess which of these scenarios will play out; the post-election coalition negotiations will really determine the formation of the next Iraqi government. They will also reveal whether tentative signs of a more mature Iraqi politics prevail, rather than the ugly sectarian trends fuelled by the conflict in Syria.

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