Mutlaq ban – who benefits?

This article on the Mutlaq ban was published yesterday in the Guardian.

Iraq’s troubled elections

Iraq’s national elections will go ahead in a few weeks’ time without one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the country. Salah al-Mutlaq, who had been seeking to stand as part of Ayad Allawi’s recently formed Iraqi National Movement (INM), had his appeal rejected on Friday. The decision was made after judges, as a result of an outcry among the great and powerful of Iraq’s political actors, reversed their earlier, US-sponsored decision to postpone the appeals process until after the elections.

Fierce critics of the ban on candidates formerly tied to the Ba’ath party have called it a sectarian, pre-election tactic on the part of the Shia parties – particularly the largely sectarian and Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance, which also happens to have its own electoral candidates heading the commission that banned the candidates in the first place. The INM has, for the time being, chosen to suspend its campaigning in protest, but this is unlikely to lead a full boycott of the elections.

The general conclusion has been that Mutlaq’s ban represents the liquidation of the threat to the “Shia” hold on power, but it is not yet certain which groups stand to gain the most from the affair. Individuals like Mutlaq may end up being political martyrs, which could then translate into votes for the INM, whose leader Ayad Allawi is predicted to also attract the secular Shia vote. More broadly, it could turn out to be advantageous for other Sunni and secular groupings, most of whom did not appeal the ban imposed on their candidates (and instead voluntarily replaced them) and who would benefit from the reduced competition, as well as from the heightened sense of nationalistic/anti-sectarian feelings in the tribal Sunni heartlands.

Conversely, Iraq’s leading Shia parties may benefit the threat of Ba’athism becoming an electoral issue: protests in the Shia south suggests that it could end up dictating the vote in place of other issues such as the lack of basic services and employment and security – the latter which, but for the recent terror attacks, would have been the main campaign platform of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister.

Having the politics marred by an apparent Shia battle against the Sunnis, supplemented by an overarching power struggle between Iran, the US and the Arab world, could be in the interests of essentially sectarian groupings ISCI and the Sadrists. This may then prompt Maliki and his Islamic Dawa party to move away from its secularist, and relatively successful stance that proved fruitful in the provincial electionsin January last year. All in all, it could constitute regression for the Iraqi state, given that it would fix the much-needed cracks that were starting to appear in the rigid sectarian dynamics of the political arena.

Meanwhile, the Kurds are preparing themselves for yet another electoral face-off between the powerful PUK-KDP alliance and political newcomer Change, but they will look on with a smile on their faces as they watch their Arab competitors in the south tear themselves apart. Increased division in the south makes the Kurds – who are largely united on the outstanding disputes – the all-important post-election ally and which, in turn, could give them the upper hand on disputes related to power, oil and land.

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