Analysis of Iraq's Provincial Elections

The following interview (on 14th February 2009) with Salam Ali, member of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, is about the recent provincial elections in Iraq, after preliminary results were announced on 5th February 2009. It was conducted and published by 'Nameh Mardom,' the central organ of the Tudeh Party of Iran.

The election for provincial councils in Iraq was held on 31 January 2009 and the preliminary results were announced on 5th February.

Nameh Mardom: What is your general assessment of the outcome of the election? Do you think the results of these elections say anything about the success or otherwise of the political process that the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) has been promoting?

Salam Ali: The preliminary results for the provincial elections in 14 provinces (out of 18 – the Kurdistan federal region, with 3 provinces, and also Kirkuk were excluded), announced by the Electoral Commission on 5th Feb. 2009, indicate a change in the political landscape in Iraq, and in the positions of the political forces that contested the elections under various slates. This change reflects, in one aspect, the participation of political and social forces that had boycotted previous elections (4 years ago). But it is also an indication, in a clear way, that the electorate went to the ballot box, in most cases, with a national motivation rather than a sectarian motivation. They were also driven by a desire not to renew the mandate of those who did not fulfil their promises and let down the electorate, especially those who were in leading positions.

The results also indicate, in general, that the voice of religious and sectarian bigotry and extremism has been weakened, in favour of the orientation towards building a civil state and its institutions, that would respect the rule of law and principles of democracy.

We commend this feature of the electoral process, which indicated progress of the democratic process in the country, and the expansion of its social and political base, and the growing conviction that the ballot box is the best way to resolve differences and conflict management. Further, we stress that the recent elections were truly an important step along the road to political stability and security and the restoration of Iraq's full sovereignty and independence.

However, these positive aspects are offset by a number of negative indicators, some of which are of a very serious nature, casting a shadow over the results of the elections and their repercussions on the political scene.

1) The percentage of participation in the elections was 51 percent of the electorate (7.5 million people out of 15 million), which is lower than expectations and participation in previous elections. In the capital Baghdad and Anbar province, it did not exceed 40 percent. This reflects the reluctance of a high proportion of people to vote, as a form of protest and an expression of sentiments of frustration. In addition, many people were denied participation because they could not find their names on the electoral register. The primary responsibility for this lies with the Electoral Commission. There are other technical and logistic factors that contributed to this lower level of participation. 2) The results in a number of provinces were contrary to expectations and the information, made available to many lists by their observers and agents, about the counting of votes. This applies to the lists of the Iraqi Communist Party, whether on its own or in alliance with other forces and personalities. Our party has submitted objections to the results announced for our party in some provinces, and demanded that all objections be dealt with in utmost seriousness, professionalism and transparency, to remove doubts about the fairness of the elections and the performance of the Electoral Commission. 3) An analysis of the preliminary election results confirms what our party had previously warned about, in connection with the unfair system of distributing the seats, as stipulated by the Law for Provincial Councils Elections. In some provinces, the combined votes of the winning lists did not exceed 35 percent of the total votes of the electorate, which means that, under the law, the remaining votes (65 percent), the share of lists that did not win, would unjustly be distributed to the winners! This constitutes, in our view, a threat to the democratic content of the electoral process, and represents a kind of confiscation of the voter's voice. This system inflicts gross injustice to the other lists and their voters, as well as undermines the councils' representation of the electorate in the provinces.

4) 'Political money' has been lavishly spent during the election campaign by some lists, including for the purpose of bribing voters. This has had a clear impact on the results, and represents a serious threat to democracy and the freedom of voters to cast ballots without illegitimate pressure and influences. This is a serious loophole in the electoral system. It requires urgent action to develop controls governing expenditure in the election campaign as part of two laws that should be promulgated: one for elections and another for parties. 5) In a clear violation of the law, the state's resources and its media institutions were widely employed by some of the lists and figures, for the purposes of election propaganda and to influence the choices of voters.

Other violations and abuses took place, including the use of places of worship in some areas.

One very important result of the provincial elections is that there will be a process of realignment of political forces, with the possible break-up of big blocs that were set up along sectarian lines. This will have a big impact on the build-up to the general, parliamentary, elections at the end of 2009.

NM: How do you view the success of Maliki's list and failure of SCIRI and Sadrist's lists? What is the reason for Maliki's ascendancy in recent months?

Ali: Maliki's list (State of the Law Coalition) adopted a generally national, non-sectarian, political discourse, carefully avoiding any religious slogans and symbols, contrary to SCIRI [its name has been changed to Supreme Islamic Assembly in Iraq, with the word 'Revolution' deleted following a congress held in 2007]. Although Maliki's coalition includes his own Islamic Daawa party, he never mentioned the name of this party throughout the election campaign ! It is also quite clear that Maliki's campaign against armed militias and the relative but significant improvement in the security situation, especially in Baghdad and Basrah, enhanced his popularity and played a decisive role in coming in first in 9 provinces.

SCIRI, which had previously controlled the councils in Baghdad and 6 southern provinces, came in a distant second in 6 provinces. In Basrah, for example, it received 11.6 percent (compared to 37 percent for Maliki's list). In Baghdad, however, it came in 6th place, with 5.4 percent (compared to 38 percent for Maliki). Significantly, in Karbala, it came 5th with 6.4 percent, and Maliki's list came 3rd with 8.5 percent. The winner there was an 'independent' figure who received 13.3 percent of the vote!

The election results also indicated reduced votes for the Iraqi Islamic Party (Moslem Brothers) in some provinces, such as Anbar.

It is important to note that none of the major lists got an absolute majority in the provincial elections.

NM: Were these elections safe from manipulations by the government and powerful blocs dominating the politics of Iraq?

Ali: Positions of influence in government and 'political money' were widely used during the period before the elections. This, and other factors, had a big influence despite the relative positive change in political consciousness among the electorate. In this respect, it is important to point out that a significant proportion of the Iraqi people continue to suffer illiteracy, ignorance, backwardness and poverty, and they have not been liberated from traditional allegiances and fear. Enormous political and social effort is needed to enable citizens to choose freely and practice their political independence, and get rid of the fear that has been instilled by dictatorial regimes, chaos, sectarian violence and militias. It would be difficult to overcome traditional allegiances and the influence of forces dominating political power unless the society recovers its well-being, political stability and security are achieved, and job opportunities are made available.

NM: How do you assess the success of the Iraqi Communist Party list in this election? What were the main reasons for the weak showing of the result for the party lists?

Ali: Our Communist Party strived to be an effective participant in the provincial elections, not with the sole aim of winning seats, in spite of its importance and necessity, but to exercise its right to reach the masses of people, publicize its policy, and mobilize them to defend their rights and freedom. The party organizations and activists strengthen their links to the people and enhance their experience through such political battles.

In addition, the party contested the elections in 8 provinces as part of democratic coalitions, as part of its objective to strengthen the democratic current in the political scene. These coalitions were locally based in some provinces. In Baghdad, Babil and Qadisiyah provinces, the coalition 'Madaniyoun' (i.e. advocates of a democratic civil state) included two other parties: the National Democratic Party and the Arab Socialist Movement. The election results will therefore provide valuable lessons about various forms of coalitions and their effectiveness, especially for the forthcoming general elections in late 2009.

The results achieved by the party lists, according to the preliminary results that have been announced, are below expectations (ranging from 1.2 percent to 2.3 percent) and do not match the status and influence of the party and its allies that are well recognized by people in the provinces and their political and social forces. The party has therefore expressed reservation about some of these results and presented its objections to the Electoral Commission.

NM: You said that despite the results of these elections, the Iraqi CP views the outcome as being in the right direction. Could you please elaborate more on this?

Ali: Our initial assessment is that the party organizations and members exerted exceptional effort during the election campaign, and what they have achieved is valuable not only for further political battles, including the forthcoming parliamentary elections, but also for the future of the democratic process. The party, on all levels, has begun a process of evaluating its performance in the elections, including its political discourse and positions, potential developments regarding social and economic issues, the effectiveness of party media and how to develop them, the need for concentrating on getting closer to the people and developing links with various sectors, as well as reviewing election campaigning methods. An objective assessment is needed coupled with determined and relentless effort to address the weaknesses and also consolidate the successes achieved. We are convinced that, despite the continuing difficult and complex conditions under which the party is functioning, its organizations are now stronger and better experienced in the democratic process, with wider connections to the people and better informed about the political complexities and the needs of the people.