Will Iraqi elections avoid traditional sectarian divides?

While the May 12 elections include Shiite candidates running in predominantly Sunni areas and vice versa, Iraqis are divided over whether or not this represents a step toward overcoming sectarian divides.

al-monitor Iraqi security members show their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election, in Najaf, Iraq, May 10, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani.

May 10, 2018

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, has not limited his campaigning for this week’s elections based on traditional sectarian considerations. He has traveled to predominantly Sunni areas such as Salahuddin province about 100 miles north of Baghdad and Anbar province about 70 miles to the west of the capital. He is the most prominent Shiite leader striving to win votes of residents in areas known for strong sectarianism, areas which the Islamic State (IS) invaded in 2014 as the group ultimately settled in about one-third of the country.

In the predominantly Sunni province of Salahuddin, the list of alliances includes diverse ethnic and sectarian names in which 332 candidates from 15 electoral alliances will compete.

In Sunni-dominated Anbar, Khalaf al-Jalibawi joined the Fateh list, which for the most part is made up of Shiite candidates affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

Meanwhile, Sunni Sheikh Rafeh al-Fahdawi joined the Abadi-affiliated Nasr list in Anbar. “The cross-sectarian and regional alliances are the true representatives of the people of Anbar, who underwent a bitter experience with terrorism and sectarian hatred,” Fahdawi told Al-Monitor. He added, “The experience of running without sectarian undertones will succeed because people have chosen candidates who are able to achieve their ambitions.”

Fahdawi said, “This will ensure the success of candidates regardless of their sectarian identity. … The chances of success for the alliance between Abadi and the factions that fought IS are great in Sunni areas because they were liberated from IS thanks to these factions.”

Fahdawi’s optimism about sectarian openness is reinforced by the fact that Sunni figures from the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party announced their candidacies in the Sunni-dominated Salahuddin province on April 19 — but within Shiite and secular lists. Abadi’s alliance is reinforced by the inclusion of prominent Sunni leaders.

There is, however, clear disagreement over the interpretation of the motives behind these intersectarian political and electoral tactics. Some believe this is proof of overcoming sectarianism, while others see it as an opportunistic means of winning votes.

The first point of view was underlined by the spokesman for the Nasr alliance, Hussein al-Adli, who told Al-Monitor, “The Abadi-led Nasr alliance includes candidates of all sects and nationalities in all provinces of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) included. In addition, 40% of the alliance’s candidates are Sunnis, and the rest are Shiites, Christians, Kurds and Turkmens.”

Adli added, “This is proof that the edge has been taken off the deep-rooted sectarianism, and the concept of electoral, political competition has made it to the forefront with no conflict between sectarian lists.”

The second point of view was expressed by the Sunni “Ninevah Is Our Identity” alliance, which shows quite a contrast. On May 1, media outlets quoted a statement from the alliance as saying that “the Islamic Dawa Party's tactic is to obtain Sunni and Shiite votes simultaneously in Ninevah and the southern provinces for the purpose of retaining the post of prime minister,” in reference to Abadi and Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom are affiliated with the Dawa Party.

In a similar vein, the nonprofit Mosul Foundation criticized on April 28 the increased activity of the Shiite parties in the city and their use of candidates from inside the city to gain seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections after the city had undergone demographic changes.

Sunni parliament member for Salahuddin Badr al-Fahal, a candidate on Abadi’s Nasr list, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The presence of a Sunni candidate on a Shiite list and vice versa is a bold step toward rescuing the country [from] the sectarian quotas that have … controlled the form of governance in Iraq since 2013.”

Shiite parliament member for the Sadrist-affiliated Ahrar bloc Abdul Aziz al-Dhalmi told Al-Monitor, “The Sadrist movement is not into maneuvering. It is serious about overcoming sectarian and even ideological bridges toward national alliances. It has candidates from the far north in the Sunni-dominated Mosul and in the southern province of Basra, with a Shiite majority.”

In addition to the calls to get past electoral sectarianism, Arab lists opened offices in KRG provinces and proceeded to compete with the Kurdish lists by presenting Kurdish and Arab candidates.

Kurdish parliament member Ala Talabani, a candidate with the Arab list of the Baghdad Alliance in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “The candidate who seeks to represent the people must overcome all internal differences. Nominating an Arab candidate in a Kurdish region and vice versa, even if it were to a limited extent, is considered a courageous step to consolidate patriotism at the expense of sub-identities.”

Some are pessimistic about the future and believe it would be misleading to think that having candidates from different religions and ethnicities on a single list will contribute to bridging the sectarian and national division in electoral lists; the purpose of all of this, they believe, is to obtain the maximum number of votes.

Qasim al-Mozan, author and journalist for Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabah, told Al-Monitor, “Ridding Iraq of sectarianism has already begun, and the first step is embodied in the people accepting Shiite electoral campaigns in Sunni areas and vice versa. This means that the doctrinal slogans and rules that have been governing the political process since 2003 are starting to fade away.”

Mozan added, “Electoral propaganda in Sunni areas implies implicit recognition of the sacrifices the army and its security forces have made while liberating these areas from IS … [it also] represents a recognition of Abadi's ability to lead Iraq at a critical stage.”

As a result, Shiite blocs and parties will get Sunni votes, and Sunni candidates will win the votes of Shiites, albeit to a lesser extent. This may be a positive development in favor of political and social stability, which had been going downhill due to the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. This will serve as a key factor in reinforcing representative democracy that allows all Iraqis to have access to parliament regardless of their sub-identities.

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