Despite Bloody Conflict, Iraq's Leader Looks Likely To Keep Power
Iraq's election didn't make a huge splash in the U.S., but the results of the April 30 vote were released this week, and the outcome has important ramifications for Iraq and the wider region. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's party came out way ahead.
Iraq has faded from the American radar, but it saw nearly a decade of U.S. military operations. And it's sandwiched between Syria, where a civil war is raging, and Iran, where nuclear negotiations are at a critical juncture.
The international community has repeatedly warned that if Iraq can't reconcile its ethnic and sectarian differences, the country could fracture and exacerbate these regional tensions.
Maliki, who continues to have U.S. support, seems poised to hold onto the job he's had for the past eight years, even though there are many who doubt that he can bring about reconciliation.
He is a Shiite Islamist politician, and in recent years of his rule, violence has surged. Ethnic and sectarian divides have deepened. Corruption is a chronic problem, and public services are still limited.
Yet according to most counts, Maliki's State of Law alliance, which is dominated by the Shiite majority, won at least 92 of the 328 seats in parliament, and maybe 100 or more, if other close allies are included.
State of Law won nearly three times as many seats as its nearest rival, but it will still need to work with other parties to form a majority in parliament that would consist of at least 165 seats.
So why did Maliki do so well at the polls when Iraq is facing so many serious problems?
Kirk Sowell, a risk analyst who studies the country for the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics, reckons the answer is threefold: First, Maliki has manipulated media coverage of the bloody chaos in Iraq so that he looks like a strong military leader rather than the man responsible for the mess.
Iraq's army has been waging a crackdown for nearly six months on dissent by the Sunni minority, concentrated in the western province of Anbar.
In the process, the Sunni extremist group ISIS has taken over the city of Fallujah and a crucial dam. Thousands of security force members have been killed.
Yet many Iraqis perceive Maliki as a strong leader who can protect them from terrorism. State television runs lurid infomercials about the dangers of Sunni terrorism and frequent interviews with Maliki and military commanders about their tough response. Maliki also uses a weekly television address to criticize his political opponents, blaming them for impasses like the failure to pass a budget.
Second, there have been some improvements in services — albeit from a low starting point. In State of Law's core turf of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, electricity now runs for about 16 to 18 hours a day, up from six to eight hours a year ago.
Third, other political groupings, particularly Sunni ones, are fractured.
While the nationwide turnout was a respectable 62 percent, many Sunnis may not have voted. Some Sunni religious leaders declared the elections illegitimate, and many Sunnis have been displaced by fighting or are in areas where it was too dangerous to go out and vote.
Plus, after elections in 2010, when a Sunni-backed group won the most votes but couldn't put together a ruling coalition, many Sunnis were put off by voting.
"Sunnis have found themselves isolated in national politics," Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, wrote recently on his blog.
The next prime minister appears certain to come from Maliki's coalition, and while it's considered likely to be Maliki, there's no guarantee. The outcome could depend on the makeup of the coalition, and that process will likely take months.
The options for coalition partners are split along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Shiite-led blocs, including those loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, hold about 85 seats.
Iran, which has enormous influence among Shiite groups in Iraq, is believed to be pushing for greater Shiite unity in Baghdad.
While Maliki is a Shiite, he is by no means the closest politician to Iran, and he has a very difficult relationship with many of the other Shiite parties in Iraq. If Iran tries to persuade the smaller parties into joining a grand Shiite coalition, they may do so only on the condition that Maliki steps aside as prime minister.
But as an alternative, State of Law politicians say they've been speaking to Sunni leaders. Despite the vicious sectarian violence in Iraq, some Sunni politicians would probably ally with Maliki to bring themselves into a ruling coalition.
But for this to work, Kurdish parties, which won more than 60 seats, would also have to join the mix. With relations between Maliki and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani at a low over budget disputes, this may be unlikely.
All forecasts point to a long, hot summer of guile and threats before a new government is formed in Baghdad. But as Norwegian academic Reidar Visser put it, the result "cannot be described as anything other than a victory" for Maliki.
NPR Beirut correspondent Alice Fordham reports frequently on Iraq. You can follow her @AliceFordham.