The Middle East Channel

Sunni voters and Iraq’s provincial elections

Iraq has now held provincial elections across the country, following those in the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa that took place on June 20, and in 12 other Arab provinces on April 20. The government’s decision to postpone elections in Anbar and Ninawa, though ostensibly for security reasons, more likely aimed to boost ...


Iraq has now held provincial elections across the country, following those in the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa that took place on June 20, and in 12 other Arab provinces on April 20. The government’s decision to postpone elections in Anbar and Ninawa, though ostensibly for security reasons, more likely aimed to boost the performance of Sunni parties aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government. Elections in the 10 Shiite-majority provinces were in large part a referendum on Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, and Shiite voters reduced Maliki’s seat total across the board. Whereas before Maliki and his allies dominated eight of these 10 provinces, Maliki now controls less than half.

In Sunni areas, by contrast, the vote may be seen as a referendum on the now six-month-old Sunni protest movement, most closely associated with Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun ("Uniters") bloc. Formed from the largest contingent of the federal Iraqiya coalition and fielding support from both protesters and the Sunni media, the Mutahidun had every reason to expect a strong win. The results of the April 20 vote were instead mixed. While winning a strong plurality of the Sunni vote in Baghdad and Diyala, the Mutahidun came in second to Salah al-Din Governor Ahmad Abdullah al-Jiburi, a Maliki ally who has turned against the movement for a Sunni autonomous region with which the Mutahidun are closely associated. 

The Anbar and Ninawa elections proved an even greater setback for the Mutahidun. And while no Sunni party ran on an expressly pro-Maliki platform, those who supported working with him did much better than would have been expected from watching Sunni media coverage of the protests in recent months. The turnout was below average in Ninawa, possibly due to deteriorating security conditions, and the Mutahidun’s weak plurality in Anbar, where participation was higher, may have been driven by security fears as some coalition leaders began threatening armed revolt in recent weeks. This suggests that Sunni concerns about Maliki’s creeping authoritarianism are being balanced with fears that the protest movement’s radicalism could direct the country toward war or partition.

The Mutahidun performed the worst in Ninawa, where Nujayfi’s brother, Uthil al-Nujayfi, is governor. With the Sunni Arab vote heavily split, the Kurdish bloc came in a surprise first, winning 11 of 39 seats. Mutahidun came in second with eight seats, but this was a huge drop from the outright majority, 19 of 37 seats, Nujayfi’s Hadba Party had won in 2009. The three parties aligned with Maliki came next, winning a combined 10 seats — Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiya (four), Abdullah Yawer’s United Ninawa (three), and Deldar Zebari’s Construction and Justice Assembly (three). Iyad Allawi’s cross-sectarian but predominately Sunni United Iraqi National Coalition won two, meaning that among Arab parties the explicitly pro- and anti-Maliki sides won the same number of seats. This is a major blow to the protest movement, which has portrayed itself as a broad uprising against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

This result leaves the Nujayfis with three options, all of them bad. A government led by the Kurds, the largest bloc, constitutes the most straightforward option. But the Nujayfis’ 2012 rapprochement with the Kurds at the national and provincial levels cost them a whopping 60 percent of their base, even though in Ninawa Nujayfi’s 2009 majority meant the Kurds were junior partners. The parties of both Yawer and Zebari are splinters from the Nujayfis’ organization, and Mutlak formed the Arab Iraqiya out of elements from the old Iraqiya coalition that favored a centralized state and opposed Kurdish demands and the prospect of an autonomous Sunni region. Putting the Kurds in charge in Ninawa would be political self-immolation.

The second option would be for the Nujayfis to form a coalition with other small Arab parties first, thus making them the largest coalition, and then include the Kurds as the junior partner, as the Kurds are not interested in the Nujayfis’ political destruction. Initial reports indicate this is what they are going to do, and Governor Nujayfi even announced a coalition agreement with a small Arab party that ended up winning a single seat before the final results were out. Yet such a deal would make Nujayfi dependent on the Kurds in a way he was not before. 

A third option, striking a deal with the other Arab parties, is hard to imagine given the ardent antagonism between the Mutlak, Yawer, and Zebari blocs and the Nujayfi and Kurds. Indeed it is not clear whether the Nujayfis are financially independent of Turkey, a close ally. Formerly, the Nujayfis were strong Arab nationalists who opposed the Kurds on every issue until Turkey changed its policy in the 2010 to 2011 period.

The heavily favored Mutahidun did only somewhat better in Anbar, where it received eight of 31 seats. Governor Qasim al-Fahdawi, who has worked with the Maliki government and has been roundly attacked by the protests, came in second with five seats, and Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiya won four. Two anti-Maliki blocs won three seats each: Allawi’s coalition and the Anbar National Coalition, a splinter from one of the parties within the Arab Iraqiya, led by Kamil al-Dulaymi. Small parties not clearly aligned with either side won the remaining seats.

As in Ninawa, this result is quite a setback for the Sunni protest movement when considering that since December 2012 the province’s politics have been entirely dominated by them. Nujayfi’s Mutahidun allies in Anbar, which include former Finance Minister Rafia al-Isawi, Islamic Party leader Ahmad al-Alwani, and tribal "Awakening" leader Ahmad Abu Risha, can frequently be observed standing on the podium at protests in Ramadi. This Ramadi site, "Pride and Dignity Square," became emblematic among the country’s Sunni and pan-Arab media outlets. Often newscasters, including pan-Arab media like Al Jazeera, simply refer to the protest groups representing Mutahidun factions as "the Iraqi protesters." No other party has done more than give lip service to the protesters, yet the Mutahidun barely managed a quarter of the seats.

If we take these results as reflecting voters’ views on the issue, then the segment of the protest movement pushing for an autonomous Sunni region suffered even worse, as Arab parties opposing autonomy won a majority in both provinces. In Anbar all the key protest figures in Ramadi favor a Sunni-dominated region with an independent budget and army, just like the Kurds. Abu Risha and Alwani have been especially outspoken. But personalities aside, the only major issue that separates Allawi from Nujayfi has been region formation, which Allawi opposes. Similarly, Kamil al-Dulaymi is anti-Maliki, but has also spoken out against Sunni autonomy. In Ninawa a "Yes" vote on a region referendum could presumably pass with Kurdish votes, but passing such a momentous measure with Kurdish support would start an anti-Nujayfi insurrection.

Early reports suggest that the Mutahidun have accepted the need for compromise and are moving toward a coalition agreement with Mutlak, with whom they have less toxic personal relations than with Fahdawi. But Arab Iraqiya’s opposition to the autonomy project likely means there will be no region referendum in Anbar.

Both sides have accused each other of vote buying, especially in Anbar, and it is possible that both are correct. Mutahidun rivals also accuse the local electoral commission of being dominated by the Islamic Party (IP), a holdover from when the IP ran the province from 2005 to 2009. National Mutahidun leaders have not complained much, since the national electoral commission’s two top officials are a Kurd (Serbest Mustapha) and a Sunni (Katia al-Zoubi), both from parties allied with Nujayfi.

The best explanation for Mutahidun’s surprisingly weak finish is that its message and regional connections did not resonate well with voters. Nujayfi’s alliance with the Kurds was a clear factor in Ninawa, and the Mutahidun’s ties to the regional Qatari-Turkish axis are well known though not directly acknowledged. In Anbar Mutahidun was probably also hurt by the efforts of some of its leaders to form their own army, or launch an armed revolt if not given an autonomous region. Abu Risha’s nephew, Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha, is one of the militia leaders, and there is an arrest warrant for him related to the killing of five soldiers in Ramadi in late April.

The long-term national implications of these results are less clear since they do not all point in the same direction. On the one hand, elections in Shiite provinces significantly undermined Maliki. On the other, the success of pro-Maliki parties in Sunni-dominated districts may heighten Maliki’s chances of winning a third term, should he desire it. While Maliki’s offers to compromise and relax de-Baathification measures alienated some Shiite voters, Maliki’s more inclusive approach to Sunnis — at least those who do not oppose him politically — gives them a stake in his survival.

As for Nujayfi, since becoming speaker of parliament in December 2010 he has used the office to elevate himself as Iraq’s preeminent Sunni leader, but his bloc’s underwhelming performance calls that into question. Moreover, depending on how he handles coalition building in Ninawa, Nujayfi’s home province, could be his undoing. And with Maliki also struggling politically, Nujayfi, who has framed his public standing around opposition to the prime minister, may lose his primary card. Perhaps in 2014, when the next parliamentary elections are due, both Shiite and Sunni Iraqis could give rise to new leaders.

Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Uticensis Risk Services, which specializes in Arabic-language research, and the editor of Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @uticensisrisk.