Marc Lynch

Sunni electoral disaster, part 2: Baghdad

Sunni electoral disaster, part 2:  Baghdad

Preliminary results from the Baghdad provincial council election have begun to filter out into the Iraqi press. The lead story will probably be that Maliki’s Rule of Law list won more than half the seats. But the more important story may be that all of the Sunni lists combined evidently only won four or five seats between them. That, combined with the fiasco in Anbar, could put Sunni frustration firmly back into the center of Iraqi politics – risking alienation from politics, intensified intra-Sunni competition, and perhaps even a return of the insurgency.

The results published a few minutes ago show Maliki’s list in first place with "more than half" the seats in the 57 seat council. The Sadrist-backed al-Ahrar list won 10 seats, Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya list won "more than 7", and ISCI’s list 4 or 5. In fifth place came Saleh al-Mutlak’s Sunni National Dialogue list with 3 seats and the IAF with "1 or 2". If those numbers hold up, then the Sunnis will have once again been largely shut out of Baghdad. [* SEE UPDATE BELOW, WITH OFFICIAL RESULTS *]

I am not especially surprised by this result, but others should be. After all, the conventional wisdom has been that the provincial elections would redress the sectarian imbalance in the Baghdad Council — which had only one Sunni, a Communist, out of 57 seats because of their boycott of the 2005 elections. Sunnis (many of whom continue to believe themselves a majority) expected to capture a significant share of the Baghdad council this time. Most U.S. analyses shared that expectation, which was the basis for hopes that the provincial elections would lock in the incorporation of Sunnis into the political process.

But a dramatic increase in Sunni representation (commensurate with their aspirations) was always unlikely for one big reason: the clearly visible refusal to take serious measures to allow refugees or internally displaced persons to vote. IDPs were technically enfranchised, but the rule that they vote in their place of origin and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy ensured that few actually would. In September, Brian Katulis and I warned that failure to deal effectively with the IDP problem would "essentially ratify the country’s new sectarian map" created by the bloody sectarian cleansing of 2006-07. According to IOM’s authoritative surveys, about 64% of Iraqi displaced come from Baghdad — and it is in Baghdad where the effects of their disenfranchisement are most being felt. With less than 10% (or even 20%) of the seats in the Baghdad council, Sunnis may well feel that this warning has come true. How will they react?

The unexpectedly strong showing of Maliki may reflect a popular yearning for a strong central government. But add on the unexpectedly strong showing of the Islamic Party in Anbar, and it is difficult to not wonder whether there is more to the strong showing of the incumbent parties than their popularity. Months of "shaping operations" and state-funded patronage may have had something to do with it as well. But either way, the provincial elections seem likely to shift attention to exactly the question we worried about last fall: how will frustrated challengers react to their failure to obtain the share of state power that they had expected? Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Iraqi Awakening Conference and a key American ally in Sunni Iraq, has already proposed one answer: "We will form the government of Anbar anyway…An honest dictatorship is better than a democracy won through fraud." That beats the "Darfur" and "graveyards" and "streets running with blood" of which others speak, I suppose… but none are quite what the cheerleaders for this process seem to have had in mind.

I will be updating this post as more information comes in.

UPDATE: Aswat al-Iraq has posted what appear to be the official results for Baghdad. One important difference from the leaks — the Accordance Front (Tawafuq) did better (9%) than Allawi’s Iraqiya list (8.6%) or Mutlak’s list (6.9%). Depending on how the numbers aggregate to seats, that would be about 10 or 11 seats total for the Sunnis instead of 5 — not as disastrous as the leaks, but still pretty bad compared to Sunni expectations. Is that enough to trigger the potential problems outlined above? That will depend on the politics of it all… more on that later. I have to get to some real work now… will update later.

UPDATE 2:  The official results in Anbar are sharply different from the reports of the last few days.  The IHEC tally gave the victory to Saleh al-Mutlak’s bloc, followed by Abu Risha’s Awakenings Bloc, followed by the Islamic Party in third place. This is a surprise. The behavior of the Islamic Party and the Awakenings bloc over the last few days strongly suggests that they had the same information about the preliminary results– that the Islamic Party had won. This "adjustment" — if that’s what happened — for now appears to have defused the crisis over the alleged electoral fraud by the Islamic Party and the threats of violence by the Awakenings leaders by denying victory to either of the two main rivals (Abu Risha says that he’s happy with the result).  This resolution is very, shall we say, convenient… and, perhaps, a clever solution to the escalating confrontation. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about this soon.. the Islamic Party’s website is currently silent on this sudden change in their electoral fortunes.  Where’s Nate Silver to analyze the exit poll data when you need him? 

FINAL UPDATE:  I’ve spent way too much time the last few days poring over the election returns.. brings back memories!  Time to move on. I was struck, but not surprised, by the wildly over-optimistic readings of the elections in the first wave of commentary.  Now reality is setting in. 

I never expected the provincial elections to solve all of Iraq’s problems, and they didn’t. The elections have created new problems that need to be recognized and dealt with — especially Sunni frustration in Baghdad, intra-Sunni strife in Anbar, perceptions of electoral fraud in support of incumbents, IDP and refugee disenfranchisement, and the impact of the election of a strongly anti-Kurdish front up north.   But that doesn’t mean that disaster is lurking around every corner — with luck, these new problems can be dealt with constructively.  

Lest my coverage appear too negative, let me say that I’m very pleased to see the collapse of ISCI across much of the country and hopefully the end of its designs on creating a Shia super-region.  And I’m happy with the strengthening of forces calling for a stronger central state — since I’ve been arguing for years that the consolidation of a Weberian Iraqi state is the key to establishing the conditions for successfully extracting the U.S. military. With luck, the coalition-building phase can allow points of entry for some of the potentially frustrated challengers.  

I’m sincerely hoping that all the parties involved can work out their conflicts peacefully and that the results are accepted as broadly legitimate — both of which require frank, honest looks at what really happened and why. And then with the elections out of the way, the U.S. should move on to the business of starting its troop withdrawals and setting a new course. 

LAST UPDATE, AND THEN I’M DONE:  AP reports that "U.S. officials were watching the outcome to determine if Iraq was stable enough for significant reductions in the U.S. military force." I therefore withdraw all my critical analysis and heartily endorse the emergent euphoria.  Hooray!