Friday, February 06, 2009
The Election Biden Lost
The results announced yesterday showed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's nationalist, rule-of-law allies swept to victory over Shiite religious parties in a major endorsement of his crackdown on terrorism.
While some Shiite religious parties did quite poorly - particularly ISCI which only managed to muster a paltry 10% of the vote in the southern regions that it had dominated in the 2005 elections - it is important to remember that Maliki's Dawa party is itself a religious Shiite party! Juan Cole is right about this:
The big story here is that the Shiite religious parties (and yes, the Da'wa or Islamic Mission Party is among them) again swept the Shiite south. However, those Shiite parties that won out this time want a strong central government, not a Shiite mini-state. [...]
Contrary to what a lot of observers are saying, the Da'wa Party is not secular and it is not anti-Iran. It is Iraq's oldest Shiite fundamentalist party, founded in the late 1950s, and it explicitly works for an Islamic republic. Its leaders consult with and tend to defer to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
While Maliki and Dawa did make an effort to tone down the Islamist rhetoric, the success of his list had more to do with its emphasis on supporting the centralist/nationalistic positions (demanding a firm withdrawal date for US forces, pushing for a strong central government and resisting Kurdish/ISCI attempts to devolve more power to federal regions) than some phantom embrace of secularism.
Getting back to the claim in the title of the Postarticle, to suggest that the elections represented a victory for a "US ally" obscures the fact that the elections also represented a defeat for a US ally: namely ISCI. Oddly enough, to the extent that Max Boot was correct that Iran suffered a setback in the elections because its preferred partner, ISCI, was trounced, it is also the case that the US suffered a setback because it, like Iran, had primarily backed ISCI as its preferred partner. Maliki has received the support of the US, but not to the same extent that ISCI has. Hopefully, that will change.
As usual, Reidar Visser is on the money:
Regardless of Maliki's follow through, the Obama administration would do well to distance itself from ISCI and, instead, recognize that - contra the Biden plan - Iraq's stability would be better served by fostering Iraqi nationalism, even if that means less willingness to tolerate permanent bases and the like. Elections have consequences.
Beyond the numbers, these elections have several implications for the overall atmosphere of Iraqi politics. One is that they to some extent mark a rejection of sectarian identity politics. The cleavage between ISCI and Daawa during the elections campaign ran precisely along these lines: Maliki tried to emphasise Iraqi nationalism; ISCI tried to emphasise sectarian Shiism. Maliki won. Secondly, the results clearly signify the triumph of centralism over pro-federal sentiments. Again, Maliki very explicitly emphasised this contrast between himself as favouring control by Baghdad and ISCI as the party of radical decentralisation...
Overall, this should serve as a wake-up call to the outside world, which tirelessly has sought to comply with the sectarian logic embraced by ISCI – in terms of ethno-sectarian quotas, sectarian variants of federalism, and the retrograde concept of “disputed areas”. It is high time that Western politicians realise that the party they have been considering as the key to Iraq’s Shiite community (and sometimes have singled out as the likely provider of the next Iraqi premier) actually commands less than 10% support in the constituency it purports to represent. In other words, for much of the period since 2003, America’s policy in Iraq has probably not enjoyed the support of more than 25% of the country’s politicians (the two Kurdish parties and ISCI). Yet, still today, Iraqis continue to be the prisoners of the ethno-sectarian system of government that emerged in this period and was designed by the two Kurdish parties and ISCI. Even the UN special representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, seems to miss the point when he in a recent Washington Post op-ed claimed there is a need for “greater willingness to seek national reconciliation at all levels and among all major groups: Sunni-Shiite, Shiite-Shiite, Sunni-Sunni, Arab-Kurd and Kurd-Kurd.” What these elections go some way to show is that Iraqis are tired of these labels as such.
There are big tests ahead for Maliki’s “centralism” or even “Iraqi nationalism” (it was these two features, rather than a sometimes-trumpeted “secularism”, that dominated the campaign of his party). At the local level, will the Daawa engage in bold coalition-building outside the Shiite Islamist camp, or will it give in to advances from ISCI? And what about the parliamentary situation and the next speaker – will the Daawa think in terms of a “Sunni quota” or will it switch allegiance to the 22 July parties and the idea of a “nationalist” speaker of whatever sect? Finally, the next parliamentary elections scheduled for December: will Maliki now seek to convert all his nice words about centralism into specific proposals for constitutional reform? Only then will the positive tendencies seen in this election create an enduring result for the long term. The ”No Injuries Reported in Iraqi Elections”, as per a recent New York Times headline, is in itself without much significance in the absence of true political reform.