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Your Iraqi Election Cheat Sheet

The key players and key challenges heading into Sunday’s vote.

Sunday is election day in Iraq—the second national parliamentary vote since the American-led invasion in 2003. U.S. officials maintained this week that Obama’s plan to withdraw all American combat troops by September 1st is still on track, but that’s almost certainly untrue if the elections don’t go smoothly. On the whole, there are reasons to hope that Iraq is finally getting on its feet: violence levels are way down—attacks have dropped from an average of 220 per day in 2007 to less than 20 a day over the last six months—and the political alliances that have formed don’t fall neatly along ethnic and religious lines. Yet there are also serious concerns that, just like in 2005, the elections could heighten sectarian tensions and send the country back towards violence and anarchy. The top American military commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has already drawn up a contingency plan to keep certain brigades in Iraq past the deadline if the need arises. So what should we be on the lookout for on Sunday? Here’s a breakdown of the election’s biggest players, along with some of the toughest hurdles that will have to be cleared in order to solidify Iraq’s democratic status and enable a successful U.S. drawdown in the fall.

Key Players  

Nuri Kamal al-Maliki—The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Maliki is seeking a second term. After getting off to a shaky start, the PM’s popularity has been buoyed by the decrease in violence and uptick in commercial activity in Iraq over the last two years. He leads the State of Law Coalition, which includes 40 smaller parties that span Iraq’s ethnic and religious spectrum but remains dominated by Dawa, his own largely Shiite party.  

His pitch: Caught between the competing influences of Iran and the United States, Maliki decided last year to break away from his more conservative Shiite allies who ran with him in 2005. He is now attempting to walk a tightrope by fashioning a largely secular, nationalist message about improved Iraqi security and good governance that nonetheless affirms the Shiite identity of his base. 

Ibrahim al-Jaafari—Iraq’s first democratically chosen Prime Minister in 2005, Jaafari was replaced (in part due to American prodding) by Maliki as head of the governing Dawa party in 2006. Jaafari is a Shiite physician who had lived in exile for decades before returning to Iraq after the invasion. He is now Maliki’s bitter rival and a leading candidate of the conservative Iraqi National Alliance. 

His pitch: Jaafari’s split with Maliki pushed him into the arms of an openly religious Shiite alliance that also includes Ahmed Chalabi and the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, both of whom possess ties to Iran. (Another leading candidate, Hakim al-Zamili, is widely accused of having run death squads during the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence.) In recent weeks they’ve demagogued the de-Baathification ruling and played up fears of Sunni violence in an attempt to rally the country’s Shiite majority to their side.

Ayad Allawi—Elected unanimously by the Governing Council to become the first interim prime minister of Iraq, Allawi, a Shiite, is attempting a political rebirth by once again vying for the top position. A former Baath party member, Allawi broke with the party in the 1970s and was forced into exile in England. This time around, Allawi has teamed up with Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to form Iraqiya, a Sunni-Shiite coalition.  

His pitch: Like Maliki, Allawi has campaigned on the promise of improved security. Unlike him, he’s garnered significant Sunni buy-in and called for Iraqi reintegration into the Arab world. His recent visit to Saudi Arabia underscored that message but also riled some wary Shiites. Despite the disqualification of many of its candidates—including the popular Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq—for alleged Baath party ties, Allawi’s Iraqiya has emerged as a serious contender in Sunday’s election. 

Reasons for Pessimism 

The Row Over De-Baathification—The Maliki government’s January decision to disqualify about 500 candidates for alleged Baath party ties has provoked a wave of suspicion and outrage throughout the country, especially in Sunni-dominated provinces. Ahmed Chalabi, who sits on the commission that made the call, has maintained that he’s simply upholding the constitution’s ban on all members of Saddam Hussein’s former party from electoral politics. Yet many Iraqis, along with nervous American officials, argue the statute is being exploited by the Shiite-dominated government for political gain. Several of the disqualified candidates were standing members of Parliament who had run without incident in the 2005 elections, making the sudden announcement all the more dubious. So far, most affected candidates have fought the ruling in the courts and not the streets, but with only one in five blacklisted candidates ultimately successful in overturning their disqualification, it’s become a lighting rod issue among opponents of the government, who view it as a symbol of widespread corruption. 

The Question of Legitimacy—The recent disqualifications, coupled with what an American intelligence briefing paper described as the “continued, pervasive, and biased targeting by the Iraqi Security Force” of Sunnis, has raised the specter of another Sunni boycott. This is a bone-chilling possibility for most Iraqis who seek to avoid a scenario like the one in 2005, when widespread boycotts helped delegitimize the elections and accelerated the country’s slide towards civil war. This time around, most Sunnis seem prepared to vote, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be willing to accept the outcome. Ayad Allawi has already spoken out about the possibility of electoral “irregularities,” threatening to boycott parliament if he feels the elections were fixed. What’s more, General Odierno has publicly criticized the close ties between the Iranian regime and Ahmed Chalabi, the man largely responsible for the disqualifications. Hardly in need of an excuse to cry foul about Iranian influence, many Sunni parties have latched onto the general’s words, stoking paranoia and the possibility of post-election violence. “In the West, when your right is robbed, you go to the courts,” warned Anbar province First Deputy Governor Hikmat Jasim Zaidan. “But in Iraq, it's different—when your right is robbed, [you] resort to violence.” 

The Problem of What Comes Next—While polling in Iraq is notoriously unreliable, surveys taken by Iraqi political groups and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad suggest that Maliki’s State of Law coalition will capture 30 percent of seats, while Allawi’s Iraqiya will win 22 percent and the conservative Shiite Iraqi National Alliance will pick up 17 percent. This means that even if elections go off without a hitch and all sides accept them as legitimate, there’s still the uncertain task of forming a government. This could be made all the more difficult if Maliki’s party indeed captures the most seats and is tasked with assembling a governing coalition, as neither of the other two leading parties say they are willing to stomach his renomination as prime minister. In 2005, the Kurds were able to play kingmaker by aligning with Maliki’s party to form a majority coalition. But with a divided Shiite base in 2010, even support from the Kurdish parties may not be enough to push him over the required threshold. That makes a rapprochement between the two Shiite-dominated parties the greatest likelihood, but attaching himself to the hard-line religious establishment that he’s been trying to buck could alienate Iraq’s minorities and do serious damage to Maliki’s centrist image. 

Jesse Zwick is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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