Guerrillas and Elections: The Iraqi Sunni Arabs

As we await the results of the December 15 parliamentary election in Iraq, we should–as advised also by James Joyner and Stephen Bainbridge (whose site is temporarily down)–refrain from triumphalism despite the apparent strong participation across most of Iraq. (I would not call the reported 80% turnout “massive” as Joyner does or even “impressive” as Steven Taylor does. It was precisely what should have been expected, and it is decent but hardly overwhelming.)

There is one very important thing to keep in mind about the role of these elections in the ongoing sectarian conflict that US forces remain in the middle of: The apparent strong turnout among Sunni Arabs in this election, possibly including an increase even in Anbar (where only 37% of the electorate participated in the constitutional referendum), does not in any way necessarily imply the demise of the guerrilla insurgency. Guerrilla warfare and elections are often parallel “currencies” of political power.

To understand why, it is helpful to consider what is the maximum objective that the group that has armed resistance among its constituents can obtain via institutional representation. The LA Times reported Sunday on the views of Hassan Zeidan, described as a former senior Baath Party general (thus barred from candidacy in this election), who said:

the Sunni groups would seek to enter into alliances to try to deny power to the current Shiite-led coalition under Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. Possible allies, he said, include the Kurdish parties and the followers of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was once a Baathist.

He said that if elected, the Sunnis would press for an early U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and push for added constitutional changes to unify the country and reduce the chances that Iraq could break apart along ethnic and sectarian lines. [my epmhasis]

How achievable are these stated goals? Hardly at all, if we base our assessment only on the political power they will win via the elections. Perhaps partially if they retain their other currency, armed resistance.

Even if my projections of the vote, which I presented the day before the election, are considerably optimistic from the perspective of the Shiite UIA and pessimistic for the Sunni parties, there is no realistic scenario in which the UIA will not be the largest party, holding well over one third of the seats in parliament. Even with the four-month window in which an absolute majority of the parliament can adopt any amendments that might be recommended by a cross-sectarian constitutional commission, a majority coalition to adopt constitutional changes desired by the Arab Sunnis will be hard to achieve, for reasons developed below.

While a UIA showing of around 38-40% (down from 48% last January) would make a majority coalition excluding the UIA mathematically feasible, it would be politically a non-starter. The primary reasons are:

    (1) Existing constitutional provisions on government formation;
    (2) The continuing pivotal position of the Kurds;
    and
    (3) The political fragmentation of the Arab Sunnis.

First, the constitution (Article 73) requires the Presidency Council to “name the nominee of the Council of Representatives bloc with the largest number to form the Cabinet.” That is, the first move in forming a government will necessarily go to the UIA.

It would be possible for a majority of members of parliament to oppose the UIA nominee, and thus force the Presidency Council to propose a second candidate to be Prime Minister from outside the largest bloc in parliament. However, such a development is unlikely, precisely due to the pivotal position of the Kurds and the fragmentation of the Sunnis. These latter two conditions apply even to the constitutional-amendment process; that is, they apply even given the possibility that a majority coalition for constitutional changes theoretically could form that is different from the majority that empowers the cabinet.

So the second obstacle in the way of Arab Sunnis leveraging electoral and parliamentary power to obtain changes they desire is that the Kurds will again be pivotal. Moreover, Kurds have much more incentive to remain in alliance with the UIA than to forge a new one with a bloc of Arab Sunnis–even if the latter is able to overcome its fragmentation and act as a bloc to promote collective interests of the Sunni community.

While it is clear what the Sunni parties might want from the Kurds, it is not clear what the Kurds would be willing to offer the Sunnis to build a coalition with them. The Kurds have already obtained their primary goals as a result of the current coalition with the UIA. These are: recognition of Kurdistan as an existing region within a federal Iraq, retention of their militia, control over their oil revenue, and a mechanism by which they can annex the Kirkuk region (split between Arab Sunnis and Kurds) to Kurdistan.

Arab Sunnis would like to renegotiate many of these Kurdish gains, especially the oil revenue distribution and the status of Kirkuk. Kurds have no incentive to do so–unless pressured to do so and unless they conclude it is necessary to avoid a civil war in the north that they (the Kurds) want to avoid. Obviously, the threat of igniting civil war in the Kirkuk region (and perhaps also Mosul, which is also mixed) is a trump card the Arab Sunnis will retain in an attempt to punch greater than their (electoral/parliamentary) weight.

Finally, there is the greater fragmentation of the Arab Sunni political scene relative to those of the Kurds and Shiities. It is unlikely that any one Sunni list will prove to have dominated its sectarian electorate to the extent of the main Kurdish alliance (which probably won over 90% of Kurdish votes in January) or the UIA (which appears to have won over 70% of Shiite votes in January, and could have won more this time with the inclusion of the Sadrists).

We have already seen the fragmentation of the Arab Sunnis in action: in one party’s announcement of support for the constitution in exchange for relatively minor concessions days before the referendum.

Thus it is far more likely that some fragments of the Arab Sunni political representatives will be brought into the coalition with the UIA and the Kurds than that there will be any broad Sunni-backed alliance to counter the UIA or to negotiate as a block in favor of collective goals of the Sunni portion of the population.

The likely result is at least a temporary re-fueling of the insurgency, rather than a dampening of it, as a key part of the Arab Sunni constituency continues to support insurgency as an alternative currency of power to augment their weak position within the institional political process.

Guerrillas and elections are often complementary, not contradictory, forms of political representation.

0 thoughts on “Guerrillas and Elections: The Iraqi Sunni Arabs

  1. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  2. It seems to me that an event can be expected, and still be “impressive”–surely last year if one watched Roger Clemens start this season one expected an impressive performance. (We won’t talk about run support).

    At any rate, in the context of a country that has a history of tyranny, this seems to me be to an impressive outcome, even if it was predictable.

    However, you are correct to note that triumphalism is to be avoided, as well as noting that the turnout may mean nothing in terms of the insurgency.

    Still, a good day for the process.

  3. I should make clear that I agree it was good day for the process in Iraq. But now the “easy” part is over.

    Yet 70% is not, by worldwide standards–and especially the standards of transitional democracies–all that impressively high. For example, Cambodia got 94% in 1998 and 81% in 2003; East Timor got around 91% in 2001. Etc. Of course, those cases had their insurgencies demobilized before the elections. Still, in Iraq, turnout in October was below 75% in all provinces except in Kurdistan and the surprising (and perhaps suspicious?) case of Saladdin–that is, it was not notably higher in relatively secure areas outside the Kurdish areas.

    I might note that Steven knows how to get my attention–just bring up baseball and especially phrases like “run support” (Mentioning beer, and especially hops, is also quite effective.) 🙂

  4. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

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