A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Iraqi Electoral Standoff

I've been staying away from the Iraqi election standoff because I figure Juan Cole, Reidar Visser, Marc Lynch and others who follow it more closely than I do have been keeping track of it. But as things get more and more tangled, I guess I ought to offer a few thoughts. And while the various issues involved do not involve hanging chads (non-US readers can Google it), it's still going to be a while before we see a government, I suspect. Here's my attempt at a summation for the perplexed.

‘Iyad ‘Allawi's Iraqiyya movement has the slight edge (91 seats to 89) over Prime Minister al-Maliki's State of Law bloc. Though both men are Shi‘ites, ‘Allawi is a secularist allied in a front with Sunnis. Under at least one interpretation of the constitution, ‘ Allawi, as leader of the party with the most seats, should have first crack at forming a coalition.

But there are two complicating factors. First, the Justice and Accountability Commission, the "De-Ba‘athification" commission led by Ahmad Chalabi (the onetime hero of the neocons, now seen as pro-Iranian) wants to disqualify six elected deputies. Three of them are from Iraqiyya, which means Maliki would have more seats than ‘Allawi. That attempt so far has not succeeded, but there's another issue. While Iraqiyya is a multi-confessional secular movement with a lot of Sunni support, the religious Shi‘ite vote is divided between two blocks: Maliki's State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (formerly Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. Though the INA is more clearly Islamist and more indisputably pro-Iranian than Maliki's, they have more in common with each other than either does with Iraqiyya.

Now the plot thickens again. The Federal Supreme Court has ruled that is constitutional for parties to form blocs in order to qualify as the largest bloc. This is being challenged by Iraqiyya, but could mean that an alliance between INA and Maliki could block ‘Allawi. But we're likely to see more constitutional arguments.

There will be attempts by both sides to portray this as a fight between the US candidate, meaning ‘Allawi, and Maliki, who will be painted as too pro-Iranian. But Maliki was our guy too, and we should be careful to assume all Iraqi Shi‘ite religious-based parties are Iranian stalking horses (though it's hard not to see Sadr that way).

So far, and I emphasize that qualification, this is playing out democratically: through the courts, the official commissions, protests to electoral bodies, etc. I think it would be a mistake to go all chicken-little and start proclaiming that Iraq is on the verge of sectarian war. (The US had the whole hanging chad thing in 2000, but when the Supreme Court ruled, it was accepted. Let's give the Iraqis the benefit of the doubt.) It also occurs to me as ironic that what is, in fact, Iraq's second general election, is as stalemated as the US' second Presidential election in 1800, when John Adams ran against Thomas Jefferson but a (later fixed) Constitutional quirk allowed Aaron Burr to challenge Jefferson and throw the whole thing into the House of Representatives. I may be reaching a bit there, but hey, it's my blog.

I would expect the rhetoric to escalate. ‘Allawi will be denounced as an American stooge and a creature of the CIA (and there's at least circumstantial evidence that might be used against him), and he'll doubtless try to paint his opponents as Iranian agents. Things are rarely that black and white. Let's keep Western analysts' rhetoric within limits and hope the Iraqis do the same. If ‘Allawi ends up as PM, we've worked with him before. If Maliki wins, ditto. I don't intend to provide daily coverage of this, since the aforementioned other bloggers (especially Visser, but Cole's a pretty detailed poster on this stuff) are looking at the nuts and bolts.


David Mack said...

Yeah, it's messy, and we don't need to go back to the Jefferson-Adams race for a precedent. Sort of reminds one of the last Israeli election when Kadima got a narrow majority, but Netanyahu turned out to be the Israeli politician skillful enough (or unprincipled enough?) to form a majority coalition. But it is questionable whether the Netanyahu coalition is governing effectively, and the same may be true for whatever emerges from the Iraqi electoral tangle. And in Iraq, effective governance is going to be the only path to sustained legitimacy.

Bob said...

David, how would you apply your comment say to the USA?

David Mack said...

Most people, including Al Gore, accorded George W. Bush legitimacy, despite the ambiguous outcome of the 2000 election. People like me view him as a failed president, but I don't think many view him as an illegitimate president. The U.S. constitution saves the day, even when our electoral process seems imperfect. It's a better way to settle disputes over both elections and governance. The alternatives in many countries seem to be either a military coup d'etat or taking the dispute to the street.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

David (and Bob): I agree with David. The system wasn't perfect, but it permitted a constitutional resolution, even if it wasn't to everyone's liking. Part of the genius of the US Constitution is that it's one of the shortest in the world (except for Britain, which has an unwritten one, or Israel, which doesn't exactly have one officially). Yet it's one of the most flexible.