What can be gleaned from the election campaign about the political situation in Iraq?

The first impression is the striking normality of the election campaign, with the usual mixture of unrealistic promises by all parties, verbal attacks against competitors, and attempts by parties to appropriate symbols that do not properly belong to any one faction—the Iraqi equivalent of wrapping oneself up in the flag. For example, both the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which groups most Shi’i religious parties, as well as individual candidates from the supposedly secular Iraqi National Movements, have displayed picture of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on their campaign posters; Sistani actually refused to endorse any organization, limiting himself to urging voters to choose capable and honest candidates. Electoral politics, it seems, has a logic of its own that applies to all countries.

A more unusual theme common to all the Iraqi campaigns is the certainty all alliances voice that the elections will be marred by fraud. No group specifies who it thinks is committing the fraud and certainly no group is presenting any evidence, although they state they will provide it in good time. The INA warns, for example, that it has proof that some 800,000 false names were added to the voter lists, mostly in Baghdad. The Iraqi National Movement (Iraqiya) states that fraud has already been committed when candidates were banned under the guise of de-Baathification. Several parties have complained that far too many ballots have been printed—7 million extra copies according to an Iraqiya candidate. The Iraqi Accord Front (Tawafuq) has expressed concern that too many polling stations have been opened abroad, and that this could lead to fraud. 

The warnings about fraud by all parties are somewhat alarming, suggesting that all alliances are likely to cry foul if they are not happy with election results. The worst case scenario would then be a protracted battle like the one that marred the 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan and left permanent doubts about the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai’s re-election. Such a drastic outcome is not likely, but it is quite possible that claims of fraud, which will have to be examined, will slow down the seating of the new parliament, and thus the election of the new president, the appointment of a prime minister-designate and the beginning of negotiations over the formation of the cabinet. The period between the elections and the formation of new government—which even optimists expect to last at least three months,—will be a dangerous period and its prolongation is thus worrisome. Some Iraqis have even begun to warn of election day and post-election unrest, and former prime minister Iyad Allawi, leader of the INA, has warned that he will only accept a 20 percent threshold of fraud. 

Another feature of the election campaign, common to all coalitions, is the practice of distributing gifts to potential voters in the attempt to secure their vote. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has distributed hand guns inscribed as a gift from the prime minister to tribal leaders—claiming that this is simply a “thank you” for their help in restoring and maintaining security and is not related to the elections. Other candidates, in the best Tammany Hall tradition, have distributed shoes, blankets, and other practical items. The practice is so widespread that it receives little attention in the media, except briefly just after the campaign started. Maliki, however, has been accused by other parties of abusing his position by using state funds to finance his campaign activities, presumably including vote buying. 

Beyond such commonalities, 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 campaign themes, personalities, or sectarian identities, there is no doubt that the differences among alliances are real.

Maliki’s State of Law coalition has stressed several main themes: 

  • The Maliki government has succeeded in restoring security. Not surprisingly, the role played by the United States is rarely mentioned, if at all. Instead Maliki emphasizes the fact that State of Law alliance is best placed to restore the sovereignty of Iraq.
  • The opposition is using unfair means to attack State of Law because it is well aware of State of Law’s popularity. Such unfair tactics include returning to violence and terror to undermine Maliki’s claim that he has restored security to Iraq, as well as a slander campaign accusing members of the cabinet of corruption and the government in general of acting in a non-transparent manner 
  • Baathists remain a danger, hence there is a need to stand tough against them—this appears to be an attempt to justify Maliki’s support for the banning of some 500 candidates at a time when many other politicians, including President Jalal Talabani, were questioning the legality of the Justice and Accountability Commission, which decided on the bans. However, Maliki has also tried to contain the damage that his support for the banning has inflicted on his campaign by arguing that Baathists who “have done their part to protect Iraq” should be forgiven. This reference is in response to the JAC’s more recent decision to ban military personnel and echoes Maliki’s announcement of his intention to reintegrate into the military around 20,000 members of Saddam Hussein’s army. 
  • Looking past the elections, State of Law will continue improving security and services, maintain the country’s unity and reclaim its sovereignty, and rebuild state institutions.
  • A theme that has not occupied a prominent role in the campaign, somewhat surprisingly, is the identity of State of Law as a non-sectarian alliance. Only toward the end of the campaign did Maliki announce that after the elections he intends to form an alliance with the Kurdish parties as well as with the Iraqi National Alliance. The announcement came after INM had announced that it ntended to enter into an alliance with the same groups.

The Iraqi National Alliance is openly appealing to the Shia religious element in Iraq in its campaign. It is also seeking to distance itself from the Maliki government, which is normal for an opposition alliance, but also somewhat hypocritical since most of the INA member parties were part of the coalition that backed the Maliki government and even controlled ministries. 

  • INA is trying to capitalize on Ayatollah Sistani exhortation to the voters to select competent and honest candidates by stressing those qualities in its own candidates—INA’s election posters always stress the educational degrees and professional qualifications of their candidates. 
  • It portrays itself as the organization that would do most to alleviate the suffering of the poor and restore social justice by improving services and even creating a special anti-poverty fund financed by oil revenue—these are not unusual campaign themes for any party, but they also echo concerns typically voiced by Islamist parties everywhere.
  • It denounces the corruption of  the present government and its lack of transparency, stressing its own transparency as well as its willingness to work alongside all other organizations. Whether the claim to transparency will convince voters is open to question, given the presence of definitely non-transparent individuals like Ahmed Chalabi and Moqtada Sadr in the alliance.

The Iraqi National Movement (Iraqiya) is running its campaign on a strong nationalist theme and is also the only alliance to emphasize the importance of a new foreign policy that forges strong ties with all neighboring countries. 

  • It presents itself as the victim of a government smear campaign, which includes allegations about the Baathist ties of some of its candidates, most prominently Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the harassment of its candidates and supporters. Assassination attempts in early February against Iraqiya candidates, and widespread claims of helicopters dropping leaflets and spreading anti-Allawi propaganda, have both been seized upon by the Iraqiya leadership to exploit the claim that they are being targeted.
  • It has made a major effort to portray itself as the organization capable of restoring Iraq to its greatness and power in the region.
  • It has tried to show that it will be able to forge strong relations with all neighbors, but will not allow any country to exercise undue influence. To stress the point, Iyad Allawi has visited most Arab capitals in recent weeks and Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi has also traveled widely. At the same time, Allawi has warned against excessive Iranian influence and the machinations of Ahmed Chalabi in this regard. 
  • It has denounced the corruption of the present government and the fraudulent tactics it is using in the run-up to the elections, beginning with the elimination from the election of candidates falsely accused of being Baathists.

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), like the INM, is stressing non-sectarianism and reconciliation

  • It emphasizes the role some of its prominent members have played in restoring security. In particular, Jawad al-Bolani played a major role as minister of the interior and Ahmed Abu Risha in fighting and defeating al-Qaeda in Anbar province.
  • It presents itself as the underdog, competing against much better financed organizations and hinting, without saying, that this lack of campaign finance shows its independence from foreign influences. The UIA’s lack of campaign finances is clearly reflected in their scant media or internet presence. 

The tone of the campaign by the Iraqi Accord or (Tawafuq) suggests that the organization has low or no expectation of joining a government coalition after the elections. Thus it stresses what it would do to prevent government abuse rather than what it would do if it were in power. 

  • Although denouncing the corruption of the government and its abuses, Tawafuq has  singled out not only the government but also the Iraqi National Movement as its major opponent, because it competes directly with it (and to some extent with the Unity Alliance of Iraq) for Sunni votes. Tawafuq claims that it played a much greater role than the INM in fighting the banning of candidates, although the INM was the major victim of the decision, losing two prominent members.
  • As part of the anti-INM campaign, some Tawafuq candidates have even made some anti-secular statements, accusing secularists, who are prominent in the INM, of being responsible for many of the country’s problems.
  • It portrays itself as the victim of a deliberate campaign by the government to harass its candidates.
  • It stresses its past role in trying to encourage reform as well as curb government corruption and abuses and promises to continue to do the same in the future. 
  • Contrary to other parties, Tawafuq also focuses heavily on the problems of the two provinces where they are likely to obtain the best elections results. They complain of being harassed in Nineveh, and also blame “certain countries” as well as Iraqi forces of disrupting the province. Similarly, they claim that Anbar province has experienced a rise in corruption and a deteriorations of services since Tawafuq lost control of the provincial council after the January 2009 provincial elections. 

The Kurdish Parties 

In the course of the campaign, definite differences have appeared between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, running as the Kurdish Alliance, and the Gorran (Change), the new organization that broke off from the PUK and is now competing for its constituency. The Kurdish Alliance and Gorran are running against each other and spend much of their time trading accusations—the rivalry is especially bitter between the PUK and Gorran, both of which are concentrating their efforts on the province of Suleimaniya.

In addition to fighting Gorran, to which PUK’s official media routinely refers to as the “the so-called Change movement that belongs to the Wesha company”, the Kurdish Alliance is campaigning on its record in running the Kurdistan Regional Government.

  • It stresses the importance of developing the economy of Kurdistan, building up its infrastructure, promoting trade, and allowing the private sector to flourish.
  • It stresses the increase in oil production and profits because of the new contracts the KRG signed.
  • It is trying to show its concern for and good will toward other ethnic groups, referring, for example, to Kurdish–Arab brotherhood in Mosul. 
  • On the issue of the peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces recognized as legal under the constitution, the Kurdish Alliance bristles at criticism from Gorran, which claims it consists of separate militias controlled by the parties. The mere use of the word ‘militia’ in describing the peshmerga is an offense to many Kudistan Alliance supporters. The president of Kurdistan has declared that criticism of the peshmerga is a red line. 
  • The PUK, in particular, insists that Jalal Talabani must be re-elected president.

In addition to trading accusations with the Kurdish alliance, Gorran is seeking to cast itself as a democratic force in Kurdistan and Iraq.

  • It claims it will play a nation-building role and will focus not only on regional issues, but on those that affect the entire country
  • It declares that it will fight  to get rid of the persisting negative view that other Iraqis have of the Kurds
  • It will entrench human rights and civil society
  • It will promote national unity and fight against the apportioning of government position along party lines.
  • It will fight corruption.