Iraq's parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 2018, will serve as the first national referendum since defeating the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. Sectarianism will remain a problem in this election, an endemic dynamic in Iraqi politics since 2003 when Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Nonetheless, a greater problem, that rarely garners attention in international media and policy circles, will persist: intra-sectarianism.
Observers of the lead-up to the elections will invariably examine the Shia versus Sunni rivalries during the process, but I believe that the most salient dynamic is the division within Iraq's Shia and Sunni political elites respectively, in addition to intra-Kurdish tensions.
Divisive domestic politics
While sectarianism has contributed to violent conflict and acerbic political discourse in Iraq, the divisions within respective Shia and Sunni political elites have further exacerbated Iraq's divisive domestic politics, thus hindering the government's ability to tackle pressing issues such as corruption, reconstruction, and reconciliation necessary for peace building.
Since 2003, Iraq's elections have been based on a list system where votes are cast for electoral alliances rather than politicians directly
This problem, along with tensions between Arab and Kurdish parties in light of the failed Kurdish vote on independence, raises two pressing questions: first, how will the Kurdish parties fare in a national electoral process given their failed independence initiative?
Second, how will voters react to the contentious role of the Shia militias in the electoral process, who – as armed groups – are technically barred from running by the Iraqi constitution?
The answers to these questions will be determined at the ballot box and will decide whether these parties can come to a consensus to tackle Iraq's looming humanitarian and economic issues.
Beleaguered Arab Sunni coalitions
While the elections are a few months away, Arab Sunni parties have demanded a delay of the polls so as to allow Iraq's internally displaced peoples sufficient time to return to their homes and cast their votes.
The largest Arab Sunni bloc, the "United" (al-Mutahidoon), have insisted that fair elections can only be held once refugees return to their hometowns. Estimates indicate that at the end of 2017 2.6 million people were still displaced within the country; most of them happen to be Arab Sunni constituents.
Members of the newly elected Iraqi parliament attend a session at the Parliament headquarters in Baghdad July 1 2014 (REUTERS)
The delay has been rebuffed by Iraq's Supreme Court as well as by Iraq's incumbent prime minister, Haidar Abadi, since Iraq's election had already been rescheduled from September 2017 due to the fighting with IS.
Holding the elections on time is one among many issues that Abadi will have to tackle in the lead-up to the polls, contested by a myriad of rival Shia parties.
The Shia coalitions
Since 2003, Iraq's elections have been based on a list system where votes are cast for electoral alliances rather than politicians directly. Parties tend to form coalitions prior to each election to maximise votes. In the first elections of 2005, almost all the Shia parties ran under a single electoral list, as did the Kurdish parties.
This pattern has collapsed since then. For example, Arab Sunni parties have failed to agree to run under a single list for 2018, further dividing the Arab Sunni vote.
In the lead up to the 2018 vote, Iraq's rival Shia coalitions included Abadi's, who will run for reelection as the head of the "Victory of Iraq" (Nasr al-Iraq) bloc, its name capitalising on the Iraqi victory over IS.
Second, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a political comeback since he stepped down in 2014, leading the "State of Law" (Dawlat al-Qanun) coalition.
Third, the Shia militias have fielded candidates in the "Conqueror" (al-Fatih) bloc. Even though the candidates resigned from their militia posts to run in the elections, they will maintain informal connections to their military units, some of which are connected to Iran.
The fractured Kurdish political landscape, like the Shi’a political landscape, demonstrates that Kurdish ethnicity is not in and of itself sufficient to unite Iraq's Kurds, just as the case of sectarian identity amongst Iraq’s Shi’a and Arabs
While these candidates were initially slated to run under Abadi's coalition, this alliance collapsed just a day after its formation. The reasons for the collapse remain opaque, most likely due to disagreements during the closed-door negotiations.
In theory the militia candidates could have realigned with al-Maliki, however, they chose to run independently.
These are just three groupings among a myriad of other established Shia political factions that emerged since 2003, an indication of the divisiveness within Iraq’s Shia political elite.
Rival Kurdish coalitions
The ballot box will also decide the fate of the two traditional Kurdish parties. Will the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) suffer for its leader Massoud Barzani's failed push for independence for Iraq's Kurds?
Will the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) suffer for failing to wholeheartedly endorse this effort and its tacit role in allowing the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to revert back to Iraqi government control?
In all reality these parties might suffer for both actions, but will most likely lose votes due to accusations of corruption and failure to create new jobs, issues that have led to a wave of protests in the KRG.
Iraqi men show their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at a polling station in 2010 (AFP)
Other Kurdish political parties that will capitalise on this discontent, such as the opposition party "Change" (Gorran), will run with two other KRG opposition parties to form a coalition called "Homeland" (Nishtiman).
It will be interesting to see which party the voters in the contested city of Kirkuk will support. First, the KDP indicated that it will not field candidates in the city, due to its disputed status.
The Kurdish opposition may be able to take advantage of this boycott to augment its voter base there.
Regardless, the fractured Kurdish political landscape, like the Shia political landscape, demonstrates that Kurdish ethnicity is not in and of itself sufficient to unite Iraq's Kurds, as is the case for sectarian identity among Iraq's Shia and Arabs.
Some positive indicators
Despite this gloomy prognosis for Iraq's 2018 electoral cycle, there are some positive signs.
First, it seems possible in Iraq for sectarian parties to reinvent themselves as national movements. The Sadrists, followers of Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, were implicated in sectarian reprisal killings during the conflict from 2006 to 2008.
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Second, the questions about the outcome of Iraq's elections is a reminder that the outcome of the vote is not necessarily pre-determined, a rarity in a region where elections are never held, or whose outcome will be 99.9 percent in favour of the leader-for-life.
Iraq is a flawed democracy, but in relative regional terms, offers some prospects for a new Iraqi government that can capitalise on the defeat of IS and deal with the underlying issues that led to its rise in the first place.
– Ibrahim al-Marashi is Associate Professor of Middle East History at California State University San Marcos. His publications include: Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History (2008), The Modern History of Iraq (2017), and A Concise History of the Middle East (forthcoming).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Iraq's then new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sits before submitting his government for approval to parliament in Baghdad September 8, 2014 (Reuters)