The upcoming Iraqi general election in April 2014 is likely to be characterized by strong intra-sectarian competition, as opposed to previous elections that witnessed rivalries between predominantly Shiite and predominantly Sunni alliances. This is particularly true in the Shiite political arena, where rivalry is centered on three major forces: the State of Law Coalition (SLC), led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; the Muqtada al-Sadr current; and the Supreme Islamic Council, headed by Ammar al-Hakim.
Ali Shalah, a SLC lawmaker, recently said that the Shiite National Alliance is probably going to break up into several groups. Previous reports indicated that the political bloc of Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, Mustaqiluun (Independents) — which is still part of the SLC — is studying the option of entering the elections as a single party.
The same is true for the Iraqiya List, which has broken up into several groups within parliament also fractured during the last provincial election. Zuhair al-A’iraji, a lawmaker from one of these groups — Free Iraqiya — predicted that the coalition will be replaced by three competing groups. The Mutahidoun bloc, led by parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, has recently emerged as the largest Sunni bloc but it failed to become an alternative umbrella for all Sunni factions, as has been shown by the results of the provincial election.
For many, this might come as good news. The fragmentation of large coalitions with sectarian leaning could help de-escalate intercommunal tensions and direct electoral campaigns toward less sectarian agendas. However, this is not enough to say that sectarianism is no longer a powerful force. The intra-communal rivalry may become a conflict about who is better attached to the communal interests and, therefore, lead to more radicalization in the political discourse. Furthermore, this fragmentation is accompanied by the decline of cross-sectarian coalitions that were represented by the Iraqiya List, Unity of Iraq Coalition and, to a lesser extent, the SLC during the last general election in 2010.
In the current sectarian polarization, any genuine cross-sectarian alliance would be fragile and risk losing some traditional votes that could be won by relying on its sectarian constituency. Only small parties can take such a risk, but the current electoral law and the dominance of big parties on state institutions and the media prevent those small parties from winning more than a few seats.
Many prefer forming a cohesive alliance rather than joining a larger — but fragile — one. That preference can be traced back to the conflict that followed the general election in 2010, when the Constitutional Court interpreted the meaning of the “largest bloc,” which the law stipulates as the one allowed to form a government. The court ruled that the “largest bloc” means either the largest electoral coalition or the largest coalition that forms after the elections.
As a result, most of the major powers will avoid forming fragile coalitions that seek to reap the largest number of votes possible. They prefer to enter into cohesive coalitions to avoid fragmenting their real votes. For example, the Islamic Supreme Council previously complained about losing many votes in favor of the Sadr group after the two sides formed a single coalition.
In addition, the new electoral law adopted a “modified Sainte-Lague” system, which decreases the advantages previously granted to big parties.
Sectarian and ethnic rivalries shaped the electoral map in previous years and will continue to do so. But the next election will introduce a new and crucial element represented by the political division caused by the legacy of Maliki’s rule. The reciprocal criticisms between Sadr and Maliki suggest that the two sides are unlikely to ally and that the conflict between them will be centered on which side will attract the most Shiite votes.
There is a growing rift between Maliki’s supporters and those who fear that a third term for him will weaken their political influence and strengthen his grip on power. That rift will play a decisive role in determining the electoral alliances. The main issue in the upcoming election will not be the Sunni-Shiite conflict, but Maliki’s future.