Iraq: National elections to increase unrest, instability in 2018
- Elections scheduled for May 2018 are likely to heighten political divisions and fuel continued instability.
- The vote is likely to centre heavily on competition between pro-Iran factions and those that favour greater independence from Tehran.
- Intra-Shi’a divisions and potential cross-sectarian alliances make the outcome of the vote difficult to predict. In addition to possible gains by pro-Iran groups or their rivals, there is a heightened risk of a prolonged political deadlock.
Iraq appears set for a period of volatility ahead of national elections due to a fragile security environment. Although Iraq has successfully cleared Islamic State (IS) from urban areas, militant attacks have continued across the country, necessitating further counter-insurgency operations. Iraqi security forces remain weak and the conflict with IS has led to increased ethnic and sectarian divisions that could form the basis of future conflict.
The vote itself presents significant logistical and political challenges. The decision to hold twice-delayed local elections alongside the parliamentary vote increases the complexity of the polls. Lawmakers have also yet to approve a new electoral law to govern the vote, injecting further uncertainty. The electoral commission has already ruled that tens of districts, most in predominately Sunni regions, are too unstable to carry out pre-vote preparations, a situation likely to inflame sectarian divisions if unresolved. Missing identity cards, insufficient polling stations in areas damaged by conflict, and ensuring the participation of 3.4 mn people displaced by the conflict are other major obstacles that Iraqi officials must address.
Election-inspired unrest could intensify in the lead-up to the vote, especially if there are serious questions around the legitimacy of the contest. Since 2016, supporters of prominent Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have staged repeated and occasionally violent protests in Baghdad and elsewhere over election-related grievances. Sadr’s supporters have called for reforms of the election law and election committee, and threatened a boycott if their concerns are not addressed. Former prime minister Ayad Allawi has also raised concerns about the composition of Iraq’s electoral commission.
Militias fuel political divide
The expansion of Iranian influence, namely through the country’s support of increasingly powerful militias, could worsen Iraq’s deep internal fissures. Iran has used conflict with IS to expand its influence in Iraq since 2014, exacerbating long-standing concerns among Sunnis and other minorities about Tehran’s outsized role. Iran has backed powerful Shi’a paramilitary units under the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of some 60 mostly Shi’a militias comprising 60,000 fighters who fought alongside government forces against IS.
The future structure of the PMF is a major source of domestic political tensions. Iran-backed militias such as the powerful Badr Organisation and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) are openly loyal to Tehran, which provides these factions with financial and political support. These groups have been linked to sectarian violence, corruption and criminal activity. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi favours integrating the militias into the security forces and curtailing their political activities. However, to date, his efforts have proven largely ineffective.
Powerful Iran-backed militias favour independence from the security forces and have evident political aspirations. In August, Badr Organisation, the Hezbollah Brigades, the Martyrs of Sayyid Brigades, AAH, Jund al-Imam and other pro-Iran groups announced a deal to compete in the election under a unified banner. These groups have since stepped-up their political outreach efforts, and their attempts to form a unified alliance will strengthen their position in the vote.
The upcoming election has exposed intra-Shi’a divisions amid rising Iraqi nationalism and tensions over the role of Iran and its proxies. Rivalry between Abadi and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki – a staunchly pro-Iran figure – has fuelled speculation that the prime minister may leave the ruling Dawa party and form a new group to contest the election. In July, prominent Shi’a politician Ammar al-Hakim withdrew from the powerful Shi’a Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to form a new party, the National Wisdom Movement, that he said would seek Sunni support. That same month, Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the PMF to be integrated into the armed forces, visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Sadr’s outreach comes amid unconfirmed reports he hopes to form an alliance with Abadi, Allawi’s al-Wataniya list, and the Civil Democratic Alliance, all of which have called for political reforms.
Sunni, Kurdish and other minorities lack sufficient numbers or organisation in parliament to challenge the dominance of Shi’a parties. However, cross-sectarian alliances could increase the influence of ethnic and religious minority groups in deciding the country’s next prime minister. In a bid to promote internal unity, Sunni groups unveiled the Iraqi National Forces Alliance in July under the leadership of prominent Sunni politician and speaker of Iraq’s House of Representatives Salim al-Jabouri. Sunni parties, like Shi’a groups, have also faced internal divisions over foreign support from sponsors in the Gulf and Turkey. Kurdish parties have faced discord and disarray over the 25 September independence referendum in Kurdistan which triggered a military and political response from Baghdad.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, Iraq is likely to face continued instability, while prospects for major political reforms remain limited. The fragmented political environment will make it difficult for any one party to secure a large share of the vote, necessitating alliances and coalitions to form a government. These compromises will limit scope for the implementation of major structural reforms necessary to address challenges such as endemic corruption, over-reliance on the oil sector and weak infrastructure.
Considering these dynamics, there are three core scenarios:
A. Victory by Pro-Iran Blocs:
- More than 20 political affiliates of the PMF have registered for the elections, despite calls from the prime minister urging armed groups not to compete. This includes the political factions of controversial Iran-backed groups such as the Badr Organisation, AAH,Kata’ib Hezbollah and other outfits accused of sectarian violence.
- Abadi’s failure to prevent pro-Iran militias from competing reflects the limitations of his office and the extent of Tehran’s influence in Iraq. Ninety-seven percent of the residents in the southern Shi’a-majority provinces approved of the PMF, according to an April 2017 poll by the US-based National Democratic Institute. That popularity could insulate the PMF from political pressure and translate into sizable political gains in the election, given Iraq’s predominantly Shi’a population
- Iran would likely use its influence to replace Abadi with a more pro-Tehran premier. However, gains by pro-Iran factions and a move against Abadi would intensify the country’s sectarian divisions. Perceived Sunni marginalisation at the hands of alleged Iran-backed factions in Baghdad has been a recurrent source of unrest, violence and instability in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion, and this cycle could be repeated if the vote exacerbates these social cleavages.
- For Iran, protecting its influence in Iraq, supporting Shi’a parties and maintaining access to Syria via Iraqi territory are key priorities. Tehran also hopes to limit US influence in Baghdad. A more pro-Iran premier may therefore reverse Baghdad’s recent outreach to Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, and push for the withdrawal of US-led coalition forces from Iraq.
B. Victory by ‘anti-Iran’ factions
- A victory by factions that favour greater independence from Iran could ease sectarian tensions in the near term.
- Prominent Shi’a politicians have indicated their willingness to move away from Iraq’s deeply sectarian political environment. Sadr, Hakim and Abadi are all opposed to the return of controversial former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who retains close links with Tehran. These dynamics could lead to the emergence of a political alliance with Sunni factions or others to contest the election or form a government.
- Cross-sectarian coalitions that emerge in the run-up to or after the election are likely to be untested, which could complicate governance and result in less durable political alliances.
- Pro-Iran militias could also face intensified pressure to integrate into the armed forces or disband.
- Iran is unlikely to abandon its attempts to influence Iraqi politics. Tehran will maintain, or even intensify, its proxy competition for influence in Baghdad in the event its allies are unsuccessful in the election. Political stability would nonetheless benefit from a shift away from the current highly sectarian and deeply polarised environment.
C. Political deadlock
An inconclusive outcome to the May 2018 vote could lead to prolonged uncertainty. A political deadlock could encourage greater involvement from foreign powers, while groups such as IS could seek to exploit internal instability. In November 2010, under pressure from the US, Iraqi political leaders appointed Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister after months of political deadlock following elections in March of that year.
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