March 22, 2013
By Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali
Provincial elections scheduled for April 20 have been postponed in Anbar and Ninewa provinces. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki achieved the delay through the Council of Ministers after provincial politicians claimed security was a critical concern. The move enhances the provincial campaigns of Maliki and his allies and directly limits key Sunni rivals, such as Osama al-Nujaifi and Rafi al-Issawi, whose support derives from these provinces. Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr used the decision to his own political advantage by emphasizing Maliki’s inability to provide security and leading his bloc to boycott the Cabinet as a result. The next four weeks of electoral campaigns will likely concentrate upon Sunni rivalries in Salah ad-Din and Diyala as well as intra-Shi'a rivalries in southern Iraq.
Maliki unilaterally postpones elections in Anbar and Ninewa
On March 19, the Iraqi Council of Ministers, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, announcedthat the provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewa will be postponed for a maximum of 6 months. The council attributed the decision to the security situation in both provinces and the need to prevent “terrorists from reaching to the provincial councils.” Mohsen al-Musawi, spokesperson for the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), indicated that IHEC did not have “prior notification” of the decision and only heard about it when it was announced, insisting that IHEC was ready to hold elections in all provinces.
The Council of Ministers took into account the decision on March 11 by the Anbar Provincial Council to postpone the elections and an expressed concern by some parties and personalities in Ninewa that the security environment is not conducive for campaigning. The provincial vote was surprising, given reportsthat, of the 21 Anbar Provincial Council members present, 19 voted to postpone. The only politician whose interests are apparently enhanced by this delay is Mutlak, whose relationship with the Sunni in Anbar has declined over the course of the protest movement; however, Mutlak’s affiliates do not have a majority on the council. The Iraqi Islamic Party is eager for elections to occur as soon as possible, as is Ahmad abu Risha, the former head of the al Sahwa movement. The lack of transparency on the vote makes it difficult to discern why the shift occurred.
Reportedly, the Ninewa-based “Loyalty to Ninewa” bloc also requested that the elections be delayed. The bloc is headed by former Ninewa governor Ghanim al-Baso, who was in office between 2003 and 2004. While it is possible that this bloc and others in Ninewa similarly stand to gain politically by postponing elections, it is also worthwhile to note that AQI is most active in Ninewa, to the degree that IHEC acknowledged that elections preparations were facing particular difficulties there. As of March 23, 14 candidateshave withdrawn from Ninewa elections because of threats from AQI, and a number of poll workers have also withdrawn. It is therefore possible that the security threat in Ninewa is a more genuine impediment to elections.
Nevertheless, Ninewa Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi considered the decision a “punishment” against anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating since December 2012 and indicated concerns about the legal status of the councils after their term is finished by April. Similarly, the Iraqi Kurds rejected the decision and condemned the cabinet for voting to postpone the elections despite the absence of the Iraqi Kurds and representatives of the Sunni Iraqiyya coalition at the session. The postponement was also met by angry reactions from Iraqi Shi’a parties. Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) leader Ammar al-Hakim describedthe decision as a “dangerous and very worrying step” and expressed concern that it might set a precedent for postponing the elections in other provinces. Generally, critics of the decision characterized it as a political decision rather than a security precaution.
Given the securityatmosphere and requests by local governments and politicians to postpone the elections, Maliki appears to feel that he had solid political cover to postpone the elections, despite the fact that that elections were held in Anbar and Ninewa in 2005 in the face of crippling security conditions. Regardless, this is an opportune moment for Maliki to achieve a number of objectives. First, Maliki needs to outmaneuver the protesters and their organizers, who can mobilize in support of Maliki’s opponents in Anbar and Ninewa. Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, strong in Ninewa, and former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, strong in Anbar, are employing the protests to rally their bases, and as venues for electoral campaigning. Holding the elections in April will only help them gain votes and increase their influence.
Second, Maliki needs to exhaust his political opponents and deprive them of ready access to voters. Key Sunni politicians, such as al-Nujaifi and Issawi, who would be best positioned in April to consolidate their efforts upon Salah ad Din and Diyala provinces. The decision also means that Maliki can focus on campaigning while undermining his opponents’ abilities to do the same. Third, postponing the elections will benefit Maliki’s political allies in Anbar and Ninewa, such as Mutlak, who are direct competitors to the opponents mentioned above. A delay in the elections will give them the chance to organize and recruit.
Maliki’s decision is a warning about the health of Iraq’s political system. By all accounts, Maliki took the decision unilaterally without consulting IHEC, the Iraqi parliament, or other political blocs. The postponement again raises questions about Maliki’s reach within the Iraqi state and his willingness to use any tools to target opponents.
Sadrists Intensify Election Campaign with Boycott Threat
The Sadrist Trend announced on March 19 that its ministers would boycott cabinet sessions. The announcement came after a week of intensifying Sadrist criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that focused on Maliki’s failure to provide services and security – key themes in the Sadrists’ attempts to fashion a populist image. The threat of a boycott suggests an attempt to disassociate the Sadrists from the failures of the Maliki government, an important task given the Sadrists’ hold on a number of service ministries and their consistent, if reluctant support for Maliki since the 2010 elections. At the same time, given Maliki’s willingness to buy Sadrist support through provincial governorships, ministerial appointments, and dealsover the control of independent institutions, it is possible that the Sadrists are using the boycott tactic in order to gain further concessions from the prime minister.
Muqtada al-Sadr began 2013 with moves intended to pressure the premier, voting to limit Maliki’s term as prime minister and threatening to boycott cabinet meetings in protest at the government’s failure to meet the demands of anti-government protesters. The Sadrists were brought on board, however, by an offer to take overthe Finance Ministry from Iraqiyya and a dealover control of the Accountability and Justice Commission. The Sadrists also used the issue of the budget to presentthemselves as populists concerned primarily with Maliki’s failure to provide services and employment, while providing essential support to Maliki in votingfor the budget itself.
On March 15, Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Obaidi criticized Maliki for refusing to meet with Sadr at the latter’s house in Najaf. The next day, the Sadrist Trend organizedits second annual “Day of the Oppressed” mass rally in the city of Kut on March 16. Hundreds of thousands, reportedly including Arab League envoy Naji Shalgham, listened to a televised statement from Muqtada al-Sadr in which the cleric lamented “injustice emanating from tyrannical rulers,” an implicit condemnation of Maliki.
In the past week, the Sadrists’ key complaints have been the security breaches that allowed the high-profile attack on the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad, as well as major bombings in Basra and the capital around the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Sadrist MPs called for Maliki to answerquestions in parliament and even to resignover these security breaches. The Sadrists have also been critical of the decision to postpone the provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewa, claimingthat those who voted for the postponement were being “unjust to Iraq and the Shi‘ites,” possibly a general anti-Maliki campaign slogan. Sadrist parliamentary leader Bahaa al-Araji subsequently calledthe decision to postpone “unconstitutionaland unlawful.”
Muqtada al-Sadr heightened the criticism on March 19, issuing a statementcalling Maliki’s government “a subsidy to sin” and insisting that Sadrist involvement with it would be “harmful.” Sadr then roundly criticizedMaliki’s government, accusing the premier of “selling” Iraqi land to Kuwait, allowing al-Qaeda to reappear in Iraq, failing to install a replacement for absent Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, weakening Iraq’s parliament, and politicizing the judiciary. Sadr also stressedhis rejection of “the injustice incurred upon the Sunni sect.” The latter comment marks the first time in some weeks that Sadr has expressed support or sympathy for Sunni anti-government protesters and a departure from his movement’s support of hardline de-Baathification, which has primarily affected Sunni Arabs. This further emphasizes the expansive nature of Sadr’s criticism of Maliki.
Later the same day, Sadr’s movement announcedthat Sadrist ministers would boycott cabinet meetings with immediate effect. Planning Minister and acting Finance Minister Ali al-Shukri stated at a press conference that the decision had been made at the headquarters of the Sadrist Trend’s political office in Baghdad, where the ministers had based their consultations with one another on Sadr’s earlier statements. Although no reason was given initially for the boycott, on March 20 Sadrist MP Jawad al-Shahila tied the boycott to the security situation, insisting that the boycott would continue unless security leaders – including Maliki, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, as well as the defense and interior ministers and national security and intelligence chiefs – were held accountable for allowing recent attacks to take place.
Maliki’s reaction to the Sadrist declaration has been to givethe Sadrists until Sunday, March 24, to clarify their intentions. Maliki’s media adviser Ali al-Moussawi stated the same day that Sadrist ministers would not be treated differently from other boycotting ministers and would not be allowed to run their ministries without attending cabinet meetings. This implicit threat followed the more explicit suggestion by State of Law MP Ihsan al-Awadi that Maliki might follow the precedent he set in countering the Iraqiyya boycott, placing absentee ministers on ‘compulsory leave’ and installing acting ministers in their place. This would further empower Maliki, either by granting him more allies at the cabinet table or by allowing him to buy support from other political blocs through ministerial appointments.
Sadrist responses imply strongly that the boycott is intended to place pressure on Maliki and to emphasize the Sadrists’ populism ahead of an anticipated two-horse electoral race in much of Shi‘a-dominated southern Iraq. Bahaa al-Araji told Iraqi media on March 21 that the Sadrist ministers were prepared to return to the cabinet “if necessary” on the provision that Maliki cease his “wrangling.” Araji insisted that the Sadrist ministers were “keen to provide services to the Iraqi people,” and noted the lack of a formal system for suspending ministers from government in the absence of cabinet bylaws. Any attempt by Maliki to suspend ministers, Araji stated, would be a “personal act.”
It was reported on March 21, moreover, that the Sadrists had joined with Iraqiyya to request that Maliki answer questions in parliament about the security situation in Iraq and that Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi had agreed to the request. Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Obaidi subsequently announcedthat Sadr had met with Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak and senior Iraqiyya figures Jamal al-Karbouli and Haider al-Mulla. Mutlak and Karbouli have formed their own coalition for the provincial elections, Arab Iraqiyya, and they have long been the figures within Iraqiyya most amenable to working with Maliki. Meeting with these figures, rather than more consistent Maliki critics among the Sunni Arab leadership, suggests that Sadr was seeking to demonstrate some willingness to consult outside the Shi‘a National Alliance without harming his image by reaching out to Nujaifi and Issawi.
It remains extremely unlikely that the Sadrists will form a united opposition front with Iraqiyya and the Kurds against Maliki, as Iraqiyya MP Wahida al-Jumaili suggested on March 20. Sadr has used the boycott gambit on a number of occasions in the past: Sadrist ministers refused to attend cabinet and parliamentary sessions for two months in late 2006, protesting a planned meeting between Maliki and President Bush; Sadr warned of his intention to boycott provincial elections originally scheduled for 2008 over the continued presence of American troops in Iraq; and a boycott was threatenedagain during the 2010 government formation process when Maliki announced plans to take control of the security ministries on an acting basis. More recently, Sadr calledhis ministers to Najaf in early February to discuss withdrawing from the government if the demands of anti-government protesters were not met. In that case, not only did Sadr fail to follow through on his rhetoric: he willingly took over the Finance Ministry from the boycotting Rafia al-Issawi, despite Bahaa al-Araji’s public insistencethat Sadrists would not occupy the posts of boycotting ministers.
In the meantime, however, the absence of Sadrist ministers from cabinet sessions, alongside those Iraqiyya and Kurdish ministers that continue to boycott meetings, would limit Maliki’s ability to propose legislation or push forward decisions with any semblance of legitimacy or consultation. The Sadrists currently hold six ministries among five ministers: Planning Minister Ali al-Shukri is also acting Finance Minister, while the Sadrists also hold the ministries of Housing and Construction (Muhammed al-Daraji), Municipal Affairs (Adel Reza), Labor and Social Affairs (Nasaar al-Rubai), and Antiquities and Tourism (Lawa Sumaysim). With the position of Agriculture Minister empty since the resignation of Iraqiyya’s Izz al-Din al-Dawla, and the Communications Ministry still in the hands of the deputy minister in an acting capacity, the Sadrists may be seeking to access further concessions from Maliki in the form of two contract-heavy ministries.
At the same time, the threatened boycott allows the Sadrists to put significant distance between their movement and Maliki’s in the run-up to the provincial elections, adopting a populist tone that emphasizes Maliki’s failure to provide services and security. The move, like Maliki’s decision to postpone elections in Anbar and Ninewa, makes clear that the provincial elections will be fought with every tactic at key players’ disposal, with little regard for legal, constitutional, or democratic principles.
Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali are Iraq Research Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War.