Campaign posters in central Baghdad. Iraq’s electoral commission revealed early this month that 667 foreign observers will monitor the parliamentary elections on 30 April in which 9,040 candidates are vying for 328 seats. Image Credit: EPA

Amman: Iraq’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 30, come at a time when the country is struggling with a revived Sunni insurgency with sectarian divisions are as strong as they have been for years.

Meanwhile, relations between Baghdad and the de facto autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have largely come to a standstill over unapproved Kurdish oil exports through Turkey, and the 2014 budget remains unpassed due to an impasse between Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, the Kurds, and parliamentary Speaker Osama Al Nujaifi, head of the country’s largest Sunni bloc.

There are 142 parties running, with parties allowed to either run alone or in a coalition bloc, and there are 41 such blocs.

The electoral system works such that parties running together add their total votes in order to gain more seats to divide between them, as many small parties would fail to meet the minimum threshold.

Each of Iraq’s 18 provinces is an electoral district, and the threshold is the total number of votes in the province divided by the number of seats, whose allocation is based on the estimated population.

Iraq has not had a reliable census since 1957, so the number of citizens qualifying for ration cards is used as a proxy. Despite some signs in 2010 that the country was moving toward a less sectarian political culture, conditions have deteriorated and almost all political competition is within each demographic group.

There are some third-tier blocs which mix together Sunni and Shiite Arab parties, but they are unlikely to be a large component.

The country’s Turkoman minority is split along sectarian lines, for example, Shiite Turkomans run with Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Turkoman with Sunni Arabs.

Assured of a plurality

Among the Shiite blocs, Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) is virtually assured a plurality, and his chances of a third term depend in large part on the size of that plurality.

The SLC has 12 parties, but the core four are Al Maliki’s Dawa Party, Deputy Prime Minister Hussain Al Shahristani’s Independents Assembly, plus two Iran-aligned parties, the Badr Organisation (led by Transportation Minister Hadi Al Ameri) and the Dawa-Party Iraq Organisation (led by Vice-President Khudayr Al Khuzai).

In addition, Al Maliki is informally allied with Sadiqun, the party of the Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl Al Haq (AAH).

Sadiqun is running alone in homogenous Shiite provinces and on a united pan-Shiite list in other provinces. Two other Shiite blocs form a second tier: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists.

The ISCI was the dominant Shiite party during the 2005-2008 period but lost heavily in the two years that followed only to rebound in last year’s provincial elections following a complete makeover under the cleric-politician Ammar Al Hakim. The party is a Hakim family business with the first two ISCI leaders being Hakim’s uncle and father.

The ISCI was essentially an Iranian proxy in 2005, but switched its spiritual allegiance to Iraqi clerical authorities in 2007, and underwent a technocratic overhaul following the 2010 parliamentary election.

Key Al Maliki rivals

The other key Al Maliki rival are the Sadrists, most of whom are running under the name Ahrar Bloc (Freemen Bloc). Ahrar recently voted in a new governing board following Muqtada Al Sadr’s announcement that he was withdrawing from politics. It remains unclear as to what impact Sadr’s withdrawal will have.

There are several third-tier coalitions which should get a handful of seats; some of them are entirely Shiite while others are cross-sectarian. They are about evenly divided between factions which are pro and anti-Al Maliki, and should only have an impact if Al Maliki’s margin of victory is relatively narrow.

The primary Sunni Arab bloc is Speaker Nujaifi’s Mutahidun. It contains a majority of the Sunni factions in the 2010 opposition Iraqiya coalition nominally headed by former interim Prime Minister Eyad Allawi, plus the largest Sunni Turkoman group, the Iraqi Turkoman FrontIts political programme mainly consists of decentralisation, potentially forming new autonomous regions, and the defence of Sunni identity in the face of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

While Mutahidun’s public rhetoric is focused on pillorying the Al Maliki government, Nujaifi is informally allied with the main Kurdish party, the Kurdistani Democratic Party (KDP), due to his pro-decentralisation stance, ties to Turkey and the need for Kurds, who are predominately Sunni, to balance the Shiites.

Arabist coalition

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al Mutlak’s Arab Coalition is Nujaifi’s only serious ideological rival. Al Mutlak is a secularist who favours a strong central government, and as his bloc’s name suggests, it is an Arabist coalition which opposes Kurdish demands for autonomy.

Although Al Mutlak’s Arabist rhetoric gives him a potential advantage against Nujaifi, he is caught in a perpetual dilemma as he is constantly criticising the government of which he is a part for its security policies in Sunni provinces, even as he defends centralised control of Iraq’s oil-fuelled budget.

Most of the Kurdish seats following the election will be within the United Kurdish Coalition, which includes the two traditionally dominant Kurdish parties — the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — as well as the two main Islamist opposition parties.

However, the main opposition group, Gorran, is running separately. Gorran is a splinter from the PUK and it has won a plurality of seats in Sulaymaniya province, the PUK’s traditional base, two elections in a row.

Kurdish politics has fallen into a dysfunctional mess following the rise of Gorran and the inability of the dominant parties to adjust to the need to divide posts by vote share rather than territory controlled by their respective armed wings.

Despite holding regional assembly elections last September, they have been unable to form a new government due to the PUK’s threat to use the Kurdish security forces it controls if it does not get a power allocation proportional to its vote share.

The PUK is itself paralysed internally, as it has been unable to choose a new leader since its founder and head, President Jalal Talabani, suffered a stroke in December 2012.

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan and the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.