Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A new Iraq in the making

The breakdown of the results of Iraq's recent parliamentary elections shows the entrenchment of sectarian lines, writes Nazem Abdel Wahed Al-Jasur

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Shia Muslim worshippers flagellate themselves to mark the Islamic Shia festival of Ashoura in the holy city of Karbala, 80 kms south of Baghdad

Within one year, Iraqis went to the polls three times, and yet the country is still haunted by the spectre of instability. The first elections, held 30 January 2005, were those of the National Assembly, provincial councils, and the Kurdish government. The Sunnis mostly stayed away from those elections, and yet the outcome proved crucial. The National Assembly wrote the constitution that went to a public referendum on 15 October 2005. The third elections were the parliamentary ones held on 15 December 2005.

In the parliamentary elections, candidates had the option of running individually or as part of a list. The parliament is made up of 275 seats, 230 of which are divided among electoral constituencies. The remaining 45 seats are called "compensatory" seats and go to parties that have garnered substantial votes on the national level but failed to win enough votes on the provincial level, or parties that have considerable expatriate support. The elections law defines the way in which the 45 seats are to be allocated. The formula involves dividing the total of valid votes on the number of parliamentary seats to get a national average. The number of votes obtained nationally by any party is then divided by the number of seats that party has. Parties with fewer seats than their national average are given extra "compensatory" seats.

In the 15 December elections, 307 entities (party, organisation, movement) and 12 coalition lists registered with the Elections Committee. The total number of entities, coalitions and individuals contesting the elections came to 996 in the entire country. In Baghdad alone, 106 combinations of list, entity and individuals (comprising 2,161 people) competed for 59 seats. The winners were the Unified Iraqi Alliance (128 seats), the Kurdistan Alliance (53 seats), the Iraqi Reconciliation Front (44 seats), the Iraqi National List (25 seats), National Dialogue (11 seats), Islamic Kurdistan (5 seats), Reconciliation and Liberation (3 seats), the Turkoman Front (1 seat), the Yazidi Movement (1 seat) and the Rafidayn List (1 seat).

The 15 December elections had a turnout of 69 per cent, as compared with 58 per cent in the 30 January elections. The increase in turnout was due to the active participation of Sunnis in the Nineveh, Anbar and Tikrit provinces. In Tikrit, known to be Saddam's home area, the turnout was spectacular: 88 per cent in the recent elections.

The elections were not completely free from rigging, but observers have pointed out that fraud was too minor to mar the entire process. The Shias maintain a strong presence in Baghdad, where one exclusively Shia neighbourhood, Sadr City, accounts for one-third of the total vote in the capital. The dominantly-Shia Unified Iraqi Alliance won 58 per cent of Baghdad votes, whereas 18 per cent of the vote went to the Sunni-based Reconciliation Front and 13 per cent to the Iraqi List (a coalition of Sunnis, Shias, communists, independents and Kurds). Interestingly, the Kurdistan Alliance failed to get any seats in Baghdad.

Outside Baghdad, Iraqis mostly voted along sectarian lines. In Diyali, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Basra and Babel, Shias and Sunnis live side by side, which was reflected in voting patterns. But in Anbar, Shias failed to secure a single seat, just as Sunnis made no appearance in the winning lists of Karbala or Najaf. Non-Kurds had no luck in Arbil, just as Kurds stood no chance in Maysan or Qadisiyah. The political map is mostly governed by ethnic considerations.

According to the constitution, the list winning a simple majority in the parliament should form the government. As for the cabinet, it would be composed through negotiations among the country's main groups. For the time being, it is believed that the prime minister will be Shia, the president Kurdish, and the parliamentary speaker Sunni. The distribution of cabinet posts is expected to be a tedious task, as considerations of national unity would have to be taken into account, not just the current distribution of power or parliamentary seats.

Forming a government without the dominantly- Shia Unified Iraqi Alliance is not an option, as the latter has enough seats to block the nomination of the president (for which two-thirds of the vote is required). The most critical decision, however, is that of choosing a prime minister. The Unified Iraqi Alliance will have to get that post, but its choice will depend on the views of other groups in the country.

Once the government is formed, it will have to deal with several outstanding issues, such as the future of foreign military forces, the timetable of withdrawal, and the means of restoring peace to the country. Compared with the tasks ahead, the current haggling over posts is manageable if troublesome.

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