Iraqis head to the polls on Sunday for what is considered a fundamental test of the fledgling democracy. While the results of the parliamentary elections will help determine Iraq’s stability and may influence the drawdown of U.S. forces, the voting is only one step in the country’s political transition.  

In a new Q&A, Marina Ottaway discusses the significance of the elections and what they mean for Iraq and the United States. Ottaway explains that the elections are not the conclusion of a process, but “the beginning of the new realignment of political forces in Iraq without the interference of the United States.”

Who are the key candidates and party alliances in the elections?

On March 7, Iraqis will go to the polls to elect their national assembly for the second time. It is an election that is hotly contested among 6,172 political candidates for only 325 seats. The vote is unlikely to produce decisive results and will likely lead to a prolonged period of bargaining as the winning alliances struggle to form a new coalition government.

The situation is extremely confusing concerning the party alliances. There are six key party alliances, but it is extremely likely that they will break up and reconfigure after the elections.

State of Law is the embodiment of Maliki’s strategy of recasting himself as a secular and nationalist leader. While Maliki has enticed some individuals and relatively small Sunni and Kurdish organizations to join the alliance, he has not attracted the major personalities and groups necessary to give the coalition a truly non-sectarian character. As a result, the coalition appears lopsided and dominated by Maliki himself.

The Iraqi National Alliance is the successor of the United Iraqi Alliance, which has dominated the government since the December 2005 elections. It is a coalition of all the major Shi’i parties—essentially a who’s who of the Shi’i parties in Iraq—except for Maliki’s own Dawa Party.

Despite the ban, Mutlaq’s party is still in the alliance and the Iraqi National Movement is probably the most credible group for people who are interested in voting for a secular alliance.

There is also the Iraqi National Movement, a multi-sectarian coalition that has two major players in it. One is former Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi, who is the man that the United States chose to be the first prime minister after the occupation. The second major player is Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician who was banned from participating in the elections, along with about 500 other candidates, on the grounds that they were affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s regime or apologetic of the former regime. (Read more on de-Baathification)

Despite the ban, Mutlaq’s party is still in the alliance and the Iraqi National Movement is probably the most credible group for people who are interested in voting for a secular alliance. There is a good chance that the alliance could receive a large number of Sunni votes, not necessarily because Sunnis want the multi-sectarian alliance, but because the coalition has major Sunni secular figures involved.

Other alliances include the Iraqi Accord, which is almost exclusively Sunni. It was a major coalition of Sunni parties under the previous government, but has now dwindled. They describe themselves as a secular alliance, despite the fact that its major component is the Iraqi Islamic Party and the major secular Sunni groups and politicians have joined other alliances.  

The Unity Alliance of Iraq is a non-sectarian grouping of parties and individuals who describe themselves as secular nationalists.  

Finally, there are the Kurdish parties. The Kurdish parties are divided among themselves, but present a united front to the rest of the country and are going to the election as a bloc.

(Read full profiles of the key alliances and their leaders)

Political factions have formed largely along religious and ethnic lines. Is sectarianism on the rise?

Sectarian divides are exactly the way they have been since before the U.S. occupation. The perception that sectarianism is on the rise again is based on inaccurate conclusions derived after the provincial elections in 2009. In these elections, Maliki’s party and its alliance did quite well. Maliki characterized his State of Law coalition as a nonsectarian alliance and therefore a lot of people, particularly in the United States, jumped to the conclusion that we were seeing the waning of sectarianism.

The success of Maliki’s State of Law coalition in the provincial elections should be seen more as a series of agreements between local politicians and the central government. Local politicians decided that they should hitch their wagon to the prime minister’s rather than going against the prime minister—this is why the State of Law coalition did so well.

If you look at the people in the alliances, it’s quite clear that, with the exception of the Iraqi National Movement, they are extremely unbalanced. All of the alliances (except the Kurds) have tried to bring in people from all confessional groups, but in reality the major players in most of the alliances are grouped by Shi’a, Sunni, or Kurdish. They are not very credible as nonsectarian alliances. Maliki’s own coalition is Maliki plus a number of relatively minor players. If you look at his own cabinet, all of the major non-Shi’i members have not joined him in the State of Law coalition.

Sectarianism is alive and well. It is not a resurgence, it’s a continuation of what was there before.

One of the problems with the sectarianism of the elections is that some groups are going to benefit and other groups are not. Shi’a will probably benefit from sectarianism because there are clearly predominantly Shi’i coalitions and they are the majority of the population. Shi’a will get a lot of votes and it is almost a foregone conclusion that a Shi’i coalition—whether it is the Iraqi National Alliance or State of Law—will lead the formation of the government. So, Shi’a will benefit from sectarianism. (Read more on Shi’i organizations and electoral strategy)

Unfortunately, Sunnis will not benefit from the sectarianism for two reasons. Sunnis are a minority (they are probably around 20 percent of the population) and they are not united. The Sunnis are dispersed and the risk is that they will come out of the elections feeling even more slighted by the process. Sunnis lack both the advantage of numbers and an ultimate unifying goal. (Read more about the Sunni divisions)

The Kurds are approximately the same percentage of the population (these are all estimates because there has not been a census for decades), but the Kurds are united—they squabble internally, but toward the rest of Iraq they present a cohesive front. As a result, there is going to be a Kurdish bloc that’s going to play an important role. (Read more about the rivalry between the Kurdish parties and their unifying goals)

An analysis of the various coalitions shows that sectarianism is alive and well. It is not a resurgence, it’s a continuation of what was there before.

How critical are the elections for Iraq’s democracy?

Democracy is not the result of a single event, so even if the voting goes well—there is no major violence and so on—we cannot heave a huge sigh of relief and pronounce Iraq a democratic country.

The election is just one of many steps and not the most important one. We should in no way look at these elections as the conclusion of a process—it is the beginning of the new realignment of political forces in Iraq without the interference of the United States. The United States played a major role after the December 2005 elections, but it’s not going to play a major role in this new process that begins with the elections.

How stable is Iraq’s nascent democracy? Will the elections help consolidate a stable democracy or push the country back into ethnic turmoil?

The question is not how stable is Iraq’s democracy, but how stable is Iraq itself. And we don’t know how stable Iraq is at this point.

In 2006, Iraq was extremely unstable. There was a lot of violence and essentially it was a crumbling building. The United States built a scaffolding to hold up the crumbling building with the surge. Now the scaffolding is being removed, and we don’t know how well the building will stand after the scaffolding is taken down.

In 2006, Iraq was extremely unstable. There was a lot of violence and essentially it was a crumbling building.

Iraq seems to be stable at this point, but there are still almost 100,000 U.S. troops in the country. Although the forces have been withdrawn from the cities and are less visible than they used to be, everybody knows that they are still there. So the question becomes, what will happen as the withdrawal continues?

The stability of Iraq’s democracy is related to Iraq’s stability. While stability in the country does not guarantee democracy, an unstable country guarantees that there will be no democracy. There can, however, be a stable country that’s not democratic. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a rather stable country, but definitely not a democratic one.

How democratic are the elections expected to be? Did the de-Baathification saga of banning and unbanning individuals on grounds that they were affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s regime undermine the legitimacy of the vote?

It is difficult to know how democratic the elections will be—it all depends on how one defines democratic. The expectation is that there is not going to be a great deal of open violence or direct intimidation on election day. The true challenge to Iraq’s democracy is what happened before the vote even started.

The main problem to have marred the preparations so far is the decision taken by the Justice and Accountability Commission, which is an ad hoc body created to vet candidates and remove those that were found to have past associations with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. The commission banned about 500 individuals. An appeals panel was formed and after a very confusing process and several reversals of decisions, that panel only reinstated 36 of the individuals who were originally banned.

The imbroglio was certainly not democratic—it was not a transparent process and was very politicized. The head of this Justice and Accountability Commission is himself a candidate for election. So it’s really something that should not have happened.

And there are undoubtedly many attempts to buy votes. This may not change the results, because, to some extent, everybody is doing it. All candidates are providing gifts, mostly of a practical nature, to the people they are trying to woo. One party has imported a large number of cheap sports shoes from China and they are distributing shoes. Maliki is distributing handguns to the tribes. But it’s happening on such a wide scale that in the end I’m not sure that it’s really going to change the results.

What are the major campaign issues? What do the Iraqi voters care about?

The United States expected the election to be fought largely over the issue of security and Iraq’s internal stability. People in Washington initially believed Maliki would enjoy a major advantage because he would likely claim credit for restoring security and the reduction of violence over the last couple of years.

In reality, the alliances are talking about a wide range of issues. The first impression is the normality of the campaign. All parties are making unrealistic promises, verbally attacking competitors, and attempting to use symbols that don’t actually belong to a specific faction—this is the Iraqi equivalent of wrapping oneself in the flag.

A more unusual theme is the certainty all alliances voice that the elections will be marred by fraud. The warnings about fraud are somewhat alarming, suggesting that people are likely to cry foul if they are unhappy with the results. The worst case scenario would then be a protracted battle that will slow down the formation of new government.

Beyond the similarities, different alliances are stressing different themes in their campaign. While it is impossible to know whether voters will make their choices on the basis of themes, personalities, or sectarian identities, there is no doubt that the differences among alliances are real.

(Read more on the campaign)

What is the likely outcome of the elections? When will the results be announced and will deep divisions among the likely winners slow the formation of a governing coalition?

We don’t know how long it will take to count the votes, but it will undoubtedly take several days. We will not have an announcement of the results immediately.  

What is certain is that the process of forming a new cabinet will take a considerable amount of time. It took four months in 2006 (Iraq’s previous elections were held in December 2005) before the cabinet was formed. There is an expectation that there will be a similarly protracted conflict this time.

None of the alliances are expected to win a majority of the vote and there is a chance that none of the alliances will even win a large plurality. In addition, there is an expectation that the alliances contesting the elections will not necessarily last in the present configurations after the election, but that there will be an entirely new process of forming alliances that will also be influenced by the desire or necessity to balance the tickets—to have some representation from Shi’a, Sunnis, Kurds, and minorities.

How much influence does Iran have over Iraq’s internal politics?

Iran certainly has a deep concern and strong interest in what’s going on in Iraq. Iran aspires to be the most influential country in the region. Other Arab countries complain about Iranian hegemony, and certainly Iran is a big player and it’s a big country in the region.

There is no doubt that Iran has provided some financing for every Shi’i political party, and some people argue that they are also financing other political parties. From the beginning, the Iranians did not pick a winner—they tried to hedge their bets so that no matter who forms the government they will have good relations with them.  

It’s not realistic to believe that the Iranians will be the puppet masters behind the new government.

At the same time, it’s not realistic to believe that the Iranians will be the puppet masters behind the new government. This fear is greatly exaggerated and forgets the history of Iraq.

In the 1980s, Iraq and Iran were at war with each other. It was not a war between Sunnis in Iraq and Shi’a in Iran, but it was a war between Iraqis and Iranians. We tend to look exclusively at times at the Sunni–Shi’a divide when we talk about the influence of Iran. What we also need to look at, which complicates the issue greatly, is the Arab–Persian divide. While the majority of the population in Iraq are Shi’i, they are Arab Shi’i, not Persian Shi’i.

As a big player in the region, Iran needs to be watched, but I don't think its influence is as overwhelming as it is sometimes represented.

What is the U.S. role in the elections? How will the results impact U.S. policy and military withdrawal plans?

The U.S. role is diminished. Between 2003 and the election of President Obama, the U.S. government was closely involved in every aspect of the political process and governing of the country. The United States has taken a step back in the last year and there is a greater distance between Washington and Baghdad.

Alongside the United Nations, the United States has intervened in the election process a few times as a facilitator, including trying to help find a compromise in the dispute over the current election law. During the crisis over de-Baathification, Vice President Biden went to Iraq to push for a solution. But certainly it is a much diminished role and rather than acting alone, the United States has tried to let the United Nations take the leading role in helping to organize the elections.  

The elections may impact the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Under the current plan and present conditions, all U.S. combat troops will be out of Iraq by the end of August. This is a self-imposed deadline; it is not a deadline that is in the agreement between the United States and Iraq. Essentially, the United States could change the deadline single-handedly if violence and instability grow. General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has already developed contingency plans for keeping some combat forces in Iraq past the deadline.

In the long run, the new Iraqi government will maintain good relations—Iraqis know that the United States is an integral player in the region.

The number of combat troops that will remain past August will be decided by President Obama and to some extent, dictated by logistics. By treaty obligation with Iraq, troops need to be out by the end of 2011, although trainers can stay in the country so there is some flexibility.

One way or another, the majority of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops that are still in Iraq will need to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. There needs to be a fairly regular withdrawal schedule, otherwise it turns into a rout at the end—which is obviously not what we want.

The new Iraqi government will likely be publicly opposed to a continued and prolonged American military presence. But in the long run, it will maintain good relations—Iraqis know that the United States is an integral player in the region.