Analysis: What to expect from Iraq’s elections

Interviews with candidates across the political spectrum provide insight into the forces shaping Iraq's electoral landscape and influencing upcoming negotiations to form the next government.
Analysis: What to expect from Iraq’s elections
Members of the Iraqi security forces show their ink-stained index fingers after casting their votes ahead of parliamentary elections, at a polling station in the holly city of Najaf, on May 10, 2018. (HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)

As Iraqis head to the polls on May 12, the country's political dynamics have shifted drastically since national elections four years ago.

In an effort to map the new landscape, Iraq Oil Report has interviewed over a dozen candidates from across the political spectrum in the country's two largest cities - Baghdad and Mosul - and throughout the autonomous Kurdistan region.

The interviews provide insight into the major forces that will affect elections this Saturday and the all-important backroom coalition-building negotiations that will decide the leadership of the next government.

Post-war realignment

The biggest seismic event reshaping Iraq's political landscape has been the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group.

The success of the military campaign to defeat IS has bolstered the standing of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, both among his Shia base and with the Sunni electorate in liberated areas.

But it has also coincided with a fracturing of the major political entities that have shaped Iraqi politics in previous election cycles, making it virtually impossible for any single candidate to win an outright majority or even an overwhelming plurality of seats in the next Parliament.

Riding a swell of wartime nationalism - and facing a huge post-war crisis of reconstruction - many candidates are moving away from the identity-based politics that have characterized previous Iraqi elections, and are instead running on cross-sectarian, multi-ethnic, multi-party electoral lists.

Other politicians are seeking to leverage the immense popularity of paramilitary groups - which played a significant role in defeating IS, operating under the government's al-Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization) program - by banding together in a new Hashid-affiliated bloc, known as Fatah.

And even the powerful Dawa party, which has produced the past three prime ministers, has been split - its members running on two separate lists, one headed by Abadi and the other by his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

As a result, Iraq's Shia Islamist political leaders, who once formed the core of the government as a loose but coherent entity called the National Alliance, are operating with far less formal coordination than ever before. In some cases, their electoral fates are more intertwined with Sunni candidates than with rival Shia parties.

Iraqi votes are therefore likely to be spread across more major political blocs than in previous elections, and negotiations to form the next government are likely to require even more intricate coalition-building.

Kurdish fragmentation

The internal politics of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have also become more fragmented, especially in the aftermath of an October 2017 federal military operation to re-take control of Kirkuk province from the KRG.

That operation amounted to a decisive rebuttal of the KRG's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which had spearheaded an independence referendum one month earlier. Not only did Abadi refuse to enter negotiations over a potential break-up of Iraq, but he also re-established military control of disputed territories that were essential to Kurdistan's independence aspirations.

The KRG has been poorly positioned to deal with such a strategic calamity, especially in light of a dire financial crisis, an unsustainable mountain of debt, and public discontent over unpaid public-sector salaries.

These political headwinds are likely to affect different Kurdish parties in different ways.

In the "yellow zone" of Dohuk and Erbil provinces, which have been dominated by the KDP, the ruling party still enjoys a strong base of support. Many in the party expect a moderate loss of parliamentary seats, mostly because they are projecting influence in less territory than before.

In the "green zone" of Sulaimaniya province, which has historically been controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the political scene is far more fluid.

Over the past few elections, the PUK has been losing ground to a reformist rival, the Gorran Movement, which was founded in 2009. Now, two more significant opposition parties have arisen - one led by former KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih, the other by a charismatic businessman named Shaswar Abdulwahid.

In light of these trends, Kurdish parties are likely to compete in less territory than ever before, win fewer parliamentary seats than they command now, and have a harder time forming a cohesive bloc to negotiate with strength in Baghdad.

Expect the unexpected

Iraqi electoral politics are inherently unpredictable, largely because there are so many significant political groups – none commanding anything close to a majority – and so little reliable public-opinion polling.

Another layer of uncertainty comes from the volatility of Baghdad's political coalitions, which are defined far less by the relatively steady lines of issue-based alliances and far more by ever-changing calculations of self-interest.

Yet another complicating factor in this election comes from the fact that many electoral lists do not reflect traditional political allegiances. While some lists feature candidates from a single party, many do not – and some parties are distributed across multiple lists.

This means that, after the votes are counted and the parliamentary seats are awarded, there is nothing to stop newly minted MPs from forming alliances that violate the dividing lines of their electoral lists. The biggest vote-winners on Saturday might not retain their influence through a long government-formation process.

With so many variables in play, it is a fool's errand to predict the results of the vote, let alone the far more consequential outcome of the ensuing government-formation negotiations.

That said, there is at lest one consistent trend through Iraq's elections since 2005. Each vote has resulted in one of two outcomes: either the incumbent prime minister emerges with another term, or the political blocs can only reach a compromise by elevating a previously obscure and relatively weak figure into the premiership.

Whatever happens this time, there are sure to be surprises.

Samya Kullab reported from Baghdad, Mosul, Erbil, and Sulaimaniya. Rawaz Tahir reported from Erbil and Mosul. Mohammed Hussein reported from Spain. Ben Van Heuvelen contributed from the United States.

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