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Iraq Election: Poll Shows Al-Maliki's Party Getting 1/3 Of Seats

By Juan Cole

26 February, 2010

Al-Hayat [Life] reports via AFP Arabic on the poll just released by the National Media Center, which reports to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office. According to this sounding, the major coalitions will perform thusly in the March 7 parliamentary elections (rounding up to the nearest whole number):

State of Law (Nuri al-Maliki): 30%
Iraqi National Movement (Iyad Allawi): 22%
National Iraqi Alliance (Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr): 17%
Kurdistan Alliance (Jalal Talibani and Massoud Barzani): 10%
Unity of Iraq (Jawad al-Bulani): 5%
Iraqi Accord Front (Iyad al-Samarraie): 3%
No Opinion: 5%

(State of Law: Shiite religious/ nationalist coalition of the current prime minister; Iraqi National Movement: coalition of secular Shiite and Sunni parties led by a former interim prime minister; National Iraqi Alliance: coalition of Shiite religious parties, including Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq; Kurdistan Alliance: The major but not the only Kurdish political force; Unity of Iraq: party of Interior Minister, an independent Shiite; Iraqi Accord Front: Coalition of Sunni fundamentalist parties.)

The other 8% must be for small, probably Sunni Arab or Kurdish, parties not so far detailed by the Arabic press.

There are strange things about this poll. First, it gives the major Kurdish coalition only 10%. The Kurdistan Alliance got 21% in December, 2005, or 53 seats. It is true that the Kurds lost out in the expansion of the number of seats in parliament, insofar as they have only had 43 seats set aside for the Kurdistan superprovince, or 13%. But Kurds in the mixed provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala and Ninevah should return some seats for the Kurdistan Alliance or one of its challengers. Moreover, there is no reason for a weighted poll to reflect seat apportionment. This poll is missing half the Kurds who should have turned up in it, and they can't all be in the 8% that wasn't detailed. That gap is a major flaw.

Second, the Sunni Arab parties have also disappeared. The Iraqi Accord Front gained 44 seats or 15% in December, 2005, and the National Dialogue Front of Salih Mutlak won 11 seats or 4%. So Sunni Arab parties should also have shown up as nearly 20 percent of the poll results. Instead the IAF has been reduced to 2.6%, and no other Sunni Arab parties are mentioned, though some might be in the unannounced 8%. That poor black hole of 8% cannot magically cover both the missing Sunni Arabs and the missing Kurds. Some proportion of the missing Sunni Arabs may be supporters of Allawi's National Iraqi List, but can that possibility really account for this anomaly? A lot of Sunni Arabs have not forgiven Allawi for cheerleading the US military's invasion of and virtual destruction of Fallujah in late fall of 2004.

It is true that Allawi went to visit Saudi Arabia recently in hopes of receiving King Abdullah's backing as the secular alternative to the pro-Iranian Shiite religious parties. And his coalition partner Tariq al-Hashimi is in Cairo, seeking Egypt's backing. Al-Hashimi was constrained to deny that the National Iraqi coalition had sent an envoy to Tehran seeking Iran's acquiescence in Allawi's return as prime minister, because just such a rumor was flying around Iraq. The visits to Riyadh and Cairo are intended to position the Iraqiya as the secular, Sunni-Shiite alternative to rule by religious Shiites linked to the ayatollahs in Tehran. It is a message that will resonate in the Sunni Arab provinces.

I conclude that somehow this poll over-represented the Shiite Arabs at the expense of Kurds and Sunni Arabs. The National Media Center maintains that they polled in a weighted way in all 18 provinces, so its results should be proportional. But they clearly are not.

If we focus on the Shiite parties, the results make some sense in the light of the provincial elections of January, 2009, when Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coaltion (the core of which is his Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party) took over a third of seats in the major urban centers of Baghdad and Basra, and did well in the Shiite provinces of the south, though not so overwhelmingly well.

In last year's provincial elections, the Shiite fundamentalist Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the core of today's National Iraqi Alliance, virtually collapsed after having been dominant since 2005--though it still gained between 8% and 17% of the vote. The party suffered from an anti-incumbent mood, given poor services and bad security, as well as, allegedly, public distaste at how close it is to Iran. On the other hand, the hard line Sadr Movement, another constituent of the National Iraqi Alliance, did respectably in much of the Shiite South, gaining as much as 15-17% in some provinces. So the non-Da'wa Shiite religious parties could well gain as much as a fifth of the national vote if the trends visible in the provincial elections have continued.

Allawi's Iraqi National Movement only got 9% in the December, 2005 elections, but it has been reformulated away from being mainly Shiite secularists to being cross-sectarian, and presumably some of the 20% who said they would vote for it were Sunni Arabs. The INM was joined by Tariq al-Hashemi, a vice president and a Sunni Arab who formerly led the Iraqi Islamic Party, and by Salih Mutlak, the secular, Sunni Arab leader of the National Dialogue Front. Mutlak's disqualification from running because of allegations of links to the banned Baath Party, and his recent call for his supporters to boycott the vote, could hurt Allawi's poll numbers if the poll were taken now.

For this and other reasons, I doubt Allawi's list will actually get 20% of seats in the new parliament. Iraqis have a discourse of national unity to which the list is appealing in its rhetoric. And Iraqis typically are embarrassed by sectarianism and deny its importance. But when they have gone to the polls in the past 5 years, they have almost always voted for ethnic or sectarian parties once in the privacy of the voting booth. There was also buzz for Allawi in fall of 2005 coming from polls done in the provinces by US AID and from the American Enterprise Institute (so I was told by journalists who interviewed us both), and it turned out not to amount to anything; Allawi's contingent in parliament shrank from 14% to 9%.

The poll also gave some provincial estimates for voter support for al-Maliki's State of Law coalition:

Baghdad: 32%
Basra: 41%
Babil: 49%
Dhi Qar: 42%
Karbala: 50%
Qadisiya: 56%
Muthanna: 44%

These numbers, if true, speak of a revolution in affairs since last year's provincial election, since the State of Law only won 9% in Karbala then, and the most it got outside the two big Shiite cities was 23%. Because these results are so divergent from those of only a year ago, I have trouble accepting them as accurate. Services and security aren't better, and unless al-Maliki is buying off constituents with patronage, it is hard for me to understand such a big swing in his favor.

There may also be a fear effect. Al-Maliki has been establishing tribal militias in the Shiite south loyal to him, and has moreover gotten control of a lot of the local police forces as well as the national army, so Iraqis may be reluctant to say to pollsters that they oppose him.

This poll suggests that al-Maliki's party will pull in about 108 seats in the 325-seat parliament, and that Allawi's list will get 72.

But the Shiite religious coalition, the National Iraqi Alliance, has done its own soundings, and thinks it will get 70-80 seats or as much as 25% of seats, not the 17% the National Media Center gives them. And the NIA thinks that 80 would make them the single largest party.

Although not all their leaders agree with such a strategy,it still seems most likely that al-Maliki's State of Law and al-Hakim's National Iraqi Alliance will make a post-election coalition, emerging as the largest bloc in parliament and forming the government again. Assuming al-Maliki's party doesn't actually get 30%, such a coalition might be the only way for him to remain prime minister, assuming he hasn't burned too many bridges with the other Shiite religious parties to be viable.