The outcome of Iraq’s provincial elections may not change the makeup of the government, but it has provided an important indication into the levels of support for the country’s embattled government and rival political blocs.
The April 20 vote, which involved thousands of candidates contesting seats on provincial councils, marked waning support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. The vote also highlighted hardening sectarian lines and growing polarization in the country.
The election came in the midst of a long-running political crisis in the government, which is made up of an unwieldy coalition of Shi'ite, Sunnis, and Kurds. Critics of Maliki accuse him of being an autocratic leader who has failed to live up to power-sharing agreements.
The State of Law bloc, a coalition headed by Maliki that is made up of three Shi'ite parties, won the largest number of seats in seven of 12 provinces participating in the local elections. But the bloc, which ended up with 97 seats, did not win a majority in any province and lost seats overall. Significantly, the proportion of the bloc's votes won by Maliki’s Dawa Party decreased dramatically.
Meanwhile, an alliance led by influential Shi’ite cleric Amar al-Hakim made significant inroads and finished second with 60 seats. The Shi’ite-dominated Liberals Coalition ranked third with 55 seats. The secular but Sunni-dominated Al-Iraqiyah bloc had a disappointing showing, winning just 11 seats.
Some 8,000 candidates from 50 electoral blocs vied for 378 seats on the provincial councils. Election officials reported that some 50 percent of the 13.8 million eligible voters cast ballots. Iraq’s provincial councils have some say over local security, can negotiate local business deals, and allocate government funds. They are also allowed to choose provincial governors, giving them a degree of autonomy from the central government.
Ammar al-Shahbander, an Iraqi political commentator based in Baghdad, says the outcome of the elections, which were announced on May 4, is a reflection of the waning political dominance of Maliki and the ruling elite in Iraq.
Shahbander says results indicate deepening polarization within Iraq, with no bloc able to win a majority in any province. The changing political landscape, he says, could make it difficult for Maliki to maintain his majority when parliamentary elections take place next year.
"So what we will see in Iraq is a further diversified and fragmented parliament than the current parliament," Shahbander says. "It will definitely be much more difficult than before to put together a government and choose the post of the prime minister."
The biggest loser of the election was Al-Iraqiyah, a Sunni-dominated bloc headed by Shi'ite politician Ayad Allawi. The bloc posed a formidable challenge to Maliki in the 2010 parliamentary elections but has since split into numerous factions. This time around it performed poorly, winning no more than three seats in any province.
An electoral campaign banner showing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad
Esmaal Zayer, a Baghdad-based political analyst, says the relatively strong showing by Sunni politician Osama al-Nujafi -- who was once part of Al-Iraqiyah but has since left -- shows that sectarian lines are hardening and the influence of moderates is waning.
"I do believe that Iraqis are beginning to become worried about a lot of things," Zayer says. "Sectarian rhetoric has been raised much more than before and Sunni-Shi'ite divisions have become more evident in the country."
But Zayer says it may be too soon to write off Al-Iraqiyah, with voting in the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Niveneh, the site of mass Sunni protests against the government, postponed due to security concerns. Al-Iraqiyah is expected to do well in the two provinces.
Sunnis Feel Sidelined
The country's minority Sunnis, feeling sidelined after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Shi'ite-led government, have held huge rallies to protest what they say is government persecution.
Iraq's semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, which comprises three provinces, will hold its own local elections in September. No vote is planned in the ethnically disputed province of Kirkuk, which has not had a chance to elect local officials since 2005 because residents cannot decide on a power-sharing system.
The April 20 election was Iraq's first since the U.S. military withdrew in late 2011. There was little bloodshed during the voting itself, but a wave of violence erupted days later while the votes were being counted.
Deadly clashes between protesters and government forces broke out after a crackdown on a Sunni protest camp near the northern city of Kirkuk, leaving some 40 people dead.
The United Nation's mission in Iraq said that April was the deadliest month in that country since June 2008. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said 712 people were killed and 1,633 injured in acts of terrorism and violence in Iraq in April.
Shi'a Muslims make up between 60 and 65 percent of the population, while the number of Sunnis is estimated at between 32 and 37 percent.