By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
22 December 2008
So far, it has been difficult to discuss the upcoming provincial elections in Iraq because only the names of the parties and the party leaders have been made public. But now the Iraqi elections commission has published the candidate lists for individual governorates, showing which parties will run where, as well as the names of all persons on each list.
With regard to the far south – Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar – several trends stand out:
• There are many new faces on the lists of some of the established parties. In Basra, both Fadila (list 550) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, coalition list C14) have changed almost all their candidates from 2005, with only a couple of exceptions in each case.
• The new Maliki coalition (C34) means first and foremost that the mainline faction of Nuri al-Maliki and the Tanzim al-Iraq branch (which appears to have been created with Iranian support shortly before the 2003 invasion) now run on the same list. This is very evident in Maysan and Dhi Qar where prominent members of Tanzim al-Iraq are fairly high up on the Maliki lists.
• In Basra, several parties that participated with ISCI in the old “Islamic Basra” coalition now run separately or have joined with others, including list 762 (whose leader recently expressed himself in favour of the scheme for a small-scale federal unit in Basra instead of a big Shiite federal entity as per ISCI’s preferences) as well as one defection to the more secular and tribal Hizbollah (48) of Abd al-Karim al-Muhammadawi.
• At least some of the parties that originate in Shiite circles are trying to act as genuine nationwide parties. The “constitutional party” of Jawad al-Bulani (795, associated with the recent “coup” rumours that may have been concocted by people close to Maliki) even participates in Anbar.
• Kazim Abbud runs in Basra on list 685 which is a tribal sahwa-like creation.
• Some interesting Basra-based lists (710 and 712) appear to have formed with their nuclei in the relatively small Shaykhi and Akhbari Shiite sub-sects. These parties seem to have expanded participation also from several politicians outside their core communities.
Especially interesting is the question of Sadrist participation in the south. There have been lots of rumours, including suggestions that Sadrists would run on the list of Fattah al-Shaykh (coalition C25), or even find back to their one-time ally Nuri al-Maliki and his Daawa party. In the end, it seems that the Sadrists will pursue multiple strategies and that overall there should be ample possibilities for Sadrist participation. Pro-Sadrist options appear to include:
• The pro-Sadrist Risaliyun (439), who will run in Maysan, Najaf, Babel and Diyala.
• List 731, “Blamelessness and Reconstruction”. Three Sadrist members of the Maysan governorate council have been placed on top of this list in Maysan, and in Dhi Qar it is spoken of as pro-Sadrist. The list is interesting as a possible pro-Sadrist list because it runs across southern Iraq, often with professionals and academics placed high on the list. (Ironically, the secular Wifaq had number 731 in 2005!)
• Sadr al-Iraq (825) is sometimes described as a “pro-Sadrist” list, although it should be emphasised that for example its top candidate in Basra was quite pro-federal back in 2005 and some members have secular backgrounds.
• Additionally, the party of Mahmud al-Hasani (479), a Sadrist in fierce competition with Muqtada al-Sadr, will contest in the south.
In other words, barring any additional “security operations” by Maliki there should be good prospects for participation by these marginalised groups in the south. The Sadrists are often portrayed in the Western media as an essentially destructive force; it is often forgotten that had it not been for parliamentary pressure by the Sadrists, there probably would have been no local elections at all.
Also, it would be premature to speculate on the outcome of the elections in the south before the Basra regionalism cat is out of the bag some time in mid-January. If the demand for a referendum to form a federal region in Basra keeps its momentum through securing enough signatures, many of the smaller, Basra-specific parties (515, 752) as well as Fadila may improve their chances of a good result on election day. Conversely, should the initiative fail, the race is more open. The problem with many of the new parties is that while they challenge the establishment, they mostly do so separately, without coalescing into bigger units. Additionally, independents, of whom there are a few, face the problem of a voting system that gives preference to lists (where voters know for sure that their votes will be transferred to someone else on the list if their candidate of choice has already received enough votes). In that sort of scenario, the already-powerful may easily exploit the situation to emerge as the least fragmented force, with Maliki right now appearing to be in the ascendancy at the expense of Hakim, and with Bulani as a possible outsider.
In The Washington Post, a jubilant John McCain recently proclaimed, “Iraqi politics is increasingly taking on the messy but exhilarating quality of a functioning democracy.”