Strong election results may deliver a third term for incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki, but few of Iraq’s intractable problems, from brutal violence to fragile sectarian ties, appear closer to resolution, experts say.
Iraq’s security forces are mired in near-daily clashes with militants in western Iraq, to say nothing of regular attacks elsewhere in the country, while corruption has run rampant and unemployment remains high.
Meanwhile, a lack of electoral success for secular cross-sectarian alliances could further contribute to worsening communal relations, fuelling fears Iraq may slip back into the all-out conflict that plagued it years ago.
And with no new government expected to be formed for months, the lone major positive may well be that with unrest at its worst since 2008, an election was held at all.
“It is a positive that the elections actually took place, especially given the difficult conditions Iraq is going through,” said Fanar Haddad, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
But, he added, “I certainly don’t think anything rested on the elections.”
Haddad said any pretence of non-sectarian coalition building had largely been abandoned in the campaign, and added that unrest in the Sunni Arab western province of Anbar was out of the control of politicians and unlikely to abate.
For more than four months, anti-government fighters have held control over Fallujah, which lies just a short drive from Baghdad, and shifting parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi.
Security forces have regularly shelled Fallujah and have announced multiple operations against militants in the city, but appear to have made little headway, with election officials unable to carry out polling in the city at all.
Diplomats have voiced hope that following heated rhetoric during campaigning, a resumption of talks between Iraq’s political parties could cool tensions and contribute to reduced unrest, particularly in Anbar.
– ‘Dysfunctional mess’ –
Indeed, Haddad said, Iraq’s best case scenario could simply be that no major issue significantly worsens.
“The best case scenario is business as usual,” he said. “Even if they are able to nudge Maliki away from a third term, I can’t see a reformist drive, or anything like that.”
Also of concern, analysts say, is the general lack of success for overtly secular and cross-sectarian blocs, amid signs of worsening tensions between Iraq’s communities and fears Iraq is teetering on the brink of the bloodletting of 2006 and 2007 that left tens of thousands dead.
During the country’s last elections in 2010, the party that emerged with the most seats was a secular Sunni-backed coalition, and even Maliki’s Shiite-dominated State of Law alliance, which finished a narrow second, courted a wide variety of voters.
In April’s polls, however, only one major party even attempted to win votes nationwide, with ex-premier Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya bloc finishing with just 21 out of 328 seats, less than a quarter of Maliki’s haul.
“This is extremely bad,” said Kirk Sowell, the Amman-based publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.
“If you go back to 2010, and imagine a good outcome following the US withdrawal, this is exactly the opposite of that,” he said, referring to the late-2011 departure of American military forces from Iraq.
He noted, however: “This doesn’t mean that Iraq is going to fall apart. … It’s an absolute dysfunctional mess, but it’s not literally going to fall apart and break up into multiple pieces.”
Possibly compounding the various problems, as well, is the likelihood that, despite the publication of results, formation of a new government is likely to take time.
It took nine months to agree a national unity coalition following parliamentary elections in 2010 and while analysts say it is unlikely to drag on for as long this year, the process is still expected to take months.
According to Ihsan al-Shammari, a professor of politics at Baghdad University, Maliki’s Shiite rivals in particular “will not accept the results easily”.
“The numbers they won were weak, so dealing with the results will be difficult,” he said.
“The competition and the negotiations will continue. The results did not produce the half-plus-one required (to form a government), and this takes us back to square one for long-term negotiations.”