Evaluating Iraq’s 2013 Provincial Election Results

 May 1, 2013 – by Ghassan Atiyyay – FIKRA FORUM

According to statistics from the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq, nearly 13.5 million Iraqis were eligible to vote in the twelve governorates where the first round of provincial elections took place on April 20 (Anbar and Ninawa were considered exceptions because of the security conditions, and Kirkuk is waiting for its special election law).

After the removal of approximately 200 candidates due to the Debaathification law, 50 political coalitions and 8,130 candidates competed for 378 seats, representing 265 different political and individual entities. Elections in Anbar and Ninawa are scheduled to proceed on July 4, when 1,213 candidates will compete for 69 seats, while elections in the Kurdish provinces will take place on September 21.

These elections were the first to take place after the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. According to the IHEC, the average overall level of participation was 51% (including general and special voting), whereas in the Baghdad governorate, the percent of participation did not exceed 33%, reflecting the state of popular discontent with the performance of the ruling party. In the 2009 elections, voter participation in the Baghdad governorate was 40%.

Ten years have passed since the ruling parties failed to enact legislation requiring political parties to disclose funding sources. This has created a style of campaign spending that serves the interests of foreign or governmental political financing, which was reflected in some election campaign budgets exceeding $250 million.

Throughout Iraq, the security situation has worsened. Recent electoral conflict and sectarian violence has driven Sunni ministers to resign and the Kurds to boycott the Council of Ministers and the Parliament. In most Iraqi provinces, there have been explosions; sit-ins and protests have continued for over one hundred days in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Ninawa; and candidates in these provinces as well as Baghdad and Diyala received threats in the lead up to elections, sixteen of which resulted in killings (all victims were Sunni Arab).

On the outskirts of Baghdad and Diyala provinces, large numbers of voters were prevented from participating in the elections due to either security measures and a subsequent curfew, or the far distance of voting centers. When the curfew was lifted at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the day of elections, concerned parties demanded that voting hours be extended. Officials refused, and the doors of voting centers were closed by 5 o’clock that evening. In addition to such irregularities, there were other regulatory violations such as the presence of soldiers in some of the voting centers under the pretext of security; the absence of female staff to inspect women voters, effectively preventing them from voting in those centers; and the burning down of polling stations in Sunni areas (Diyala and al-Taaji).

Furthermore, chaos engulfed efforts to update voter registrations, which had a significant impact when thousands found themselves unable to vote due to the absence of their names in the voter registry. This shortcoming can be partially blamed on the IHEC, but it was also due to voters’ inability to renew their voter registration in time.

Despite the typical focus on public service in provincial council elections, these elections took on a newly politicized dimension: they became a referendum of the Prime Minister’s credibility in Shia popular opinion. Accordingly, the Prime Minster threw his political and material weight behind election campaigns, stepping up his visits to the southern Shia provinces and Diyala, presenting himself in a charged sectarian context as the protector of the Shia from Sunni “danger,” invoking the names of the Baath party, al-Qaeda, and threatening protesters.

Before election results were officially announced, the government raised the stakes by storming Hawija Square in Kirkuk on April 23, resulting in dozens of casualties. This move constitutes a dangerous precedent for the government’s handling of protesters that could be applied to similar demonstrations in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Mosul. As a result, two Sunni ministers resigned in protest.

The elections solidified Maliki’s identity as a Shia leader and his list won in most of the Shia provinces, followed by the Citizen Coalition (founded by Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council), then the Sadrist movement, which bears the responsibility for splitting the Shia vote after its cooperation with the Kurds and the Iraqiyya list in the withdrawal of confidence from Prime Minister Maliki.

With the exception of the Diyala province, the parties of the Iraqi National Alliance (Shia) entered the election lists individually. The Rule of Law Coalition achieved a great success, followed by the Citizen Coalition, and then the Sadrist movement, with the exception of Maysan province, where the Sadrists came in first. With these results, the Shia parties consolidated their hegemony over the councils of the Shia provinces, though with an important change: it is now possible for the Rule of Law Coalition and the Citizen Coalition to form an alliance at a provincial level and exclude the Sadrist movement. This development will impact the parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place in 2014, laying the groundwork for a majority government without the Sadrists.

Ghassan Atiyyah is the founder of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy based in Baghdad and is a former visiting fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.