Outcome of Iraqi elections may affect Turkey-Iraq ties

The Iraqi parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to be held on April 30 and will decide the 328 members of the Council of Representatives, who will in turn elect the Iraqi president and prime minister, may have a significant impact on the country’s relations with Turkey as it may lead to real changes in the country’s leadership, experts say.

“This election is not only crucial for the future of Iraq but also for the future of Turkish-Iraqi ties. It is no secret that with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s leadership, Turkish-Iraqi relations will never be positive. However, if a new prime minister and a new coalition government take office in the country, things will likely change,” serhat Erkmen, from Ahi Evran university in Kirsehir, told sunday’s Zaman.

The elections may be an important turning point in Iraq’s history if the outcome leads to changes in the country’s leadership. More than 9,000 candidates are taking part in the elections, and all 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament will be contested. Although the shiite-dominated state of Law Coalition (sLC) led by Maliki — who is seeking a third consecutive term in office — is widely seen as the front-runner, experts believe the outcome of the elections may yield a surprising result as there are criticisms of Maliki’s leadership.

Iraq’s election not only offers real competition, but there is also uncertainty about the outcome.

In this election, unlike previous ones, there are not only rifts among the sunni groups in Iraq but also among shiite groups. Experts believe that the strongest challenge to Maliki’s bloc is likely to come from rival shiite factions, rather than a large sunni alliance.

According to experts, the election is likely to be characterized by strong intra-sectarian competition, as opposed to previous elections that witnessed rivalries between predominantly shiite and predominantly sunni alliances.

“The 2014 elections are very different than the previous ones. This time, the main alliances are not competing. There are no strong shiite or sunni blocs. The larger electoral blocs are being divided into smaller groups. Even Maliki’s electoral bloc finds itself without its major allies. The result of this election is important, and it will shape the future of Iraq,” Bilgay Duman, an expert on Iraq from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern strategic studies (ORsAM), told sunday’s Zaman.

Maliki secured a second term in office in 2010 largely due to the backing of Iraqi shiite parties, including the sadrist Movement led by Muqtada al-sadr and the Islamic supreme Council of Iraq (IsCI). However, in this election, the sadrists have been openly critical of Maliki’s performance, particularly over security issues. Meanwhile, these elections are being held under extremely difficult security conditions which deeply color the politics surrounding a potentially fateful vote.

“Maliki and sadr, who entered the previous election in the same alliance, have parted ways this time. This separation may stop the increasing authoritarianism in Maliki’s leadership and may increase the bargaining power of the smaller groups,” said Erkmen.

Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Iraq’s leadership and deep failures of governance, the escalating security crisis and accompanying sectarianism make it difficult for any serious challengers to the entrenched political class to gain traction. The election comes with violence in Iraq at its highest level since the peak of the sectarian insurgency from 2006 to 2008.

Experts believe that Maliki’s supporters fear that a third term for him will weaken their political influence and strengthen his grip on power, adding that the main issue in the upcoming election will not be the sunni-shiite conflict but Maliki’s future.

“This outcome of this election will not only determine Maliki’s own future of but also that of the sunni groups in the country. The biggest debate in the country is: Who is going to be the prime minister? I believe that Maliki will again take office for a third term. However, this will be not due to his success in the election but rather due to the rifts among his rivals,” Erkmen added.

The election could accelerate or halt Maliki’s centralization of power, which was among the main topics that led to the straining of relations between Ankara and Baghdad. The relations are tense due to what Turkey perceives as the Iraqi shiite-led government’s attempt to monopolize power at the expense of other groups in the country.

Ankara says that the Maliki government is trying to monopolize power by suppressing sunni Arabs and other groups, while Maliki accuses Turkey of pursuing “hostile” policies in the region and interfering in Iraqi affairs.

Duman believes that Maliki’s bloc may not emerge in a position of strength from the elections as there are groups which do not support Maliki’s third term in office. “Turkey and Iraq will definitely open a new page in relations when Maliki is no longer prime minister,” added Duman.