Iraq's Sunnis and the 2018 elections

Iraq's Sunnis and the 2018 elections
5 min read
27 November, 2017
Analysis: Next year will see the most competitive elections Iraq has seen, writes Gareth Browne.
[Archive image] Iraqi troops show their ink-stained fingers following the 2010 election [AFP]
Iraq's Sunnis have been hit harder than perhaps any other denomination by the rise and subsequent fall of the Islamic State group. Whole communities have been displaced; families split. Community leaders have fallen away - either through association with IS, or outright joining the group. Others were killed in the fighting, or arbitrarily detained on questionable grounds.

Sunnis in Iraq have long faced tough challenges, but as much as their problems stem from without - a strained relationship with Baghdad and sectarian tensions with the Shia-dominated PMF militias - there is a fundamental disconnect between the Sunni population and Sunni leaders in Baghdad.

It is a widespread belief that Sunni leaders have done very little for their sect in Iraq over the past 14 years, and accountability for the current Sunni disenfranchisement lays as much with them as it does any Shia politician or party.

There is also the practical issue of internally displaced people. While IS has been pushed out of Mosul and other hotspots across Anbar and Diyala, hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunnis are yet to return home.

This begs the question of whether or not IDPs, who overwhelmingly originate from the Sunni-majority cities captured by IS in 2014, will be able to vote - and if so whether they will be registered in their home towns, or newly found places of refuge.
There is an emerging political framework taking shape in Iraq - Islamist political parties versus civil/secular parties

But there is another challenge, as Muhanad Seloom, director of the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies, notes: "Sunni candidates running for parliamentary elections cannot campaign, without fearing for their lives, in their home provinces because of the [PMF] presence in these newly liberated cities."

The sheer volume of displaced people risks compromising a competitive political debate.

That said, the crisis that has engulfed Iraq since Mosul fell in 2014 has presented a new oportunity. As Seloom points out, "the rise and collapse of IS in Iraq fundamentally changed the dynamics of intra-Sunni politics and inter-sectarian politics in Iraq.

"There is an emerging political framework taking shape in Iraq - Islamist political parties versus civil/secular parties."

The Sunni political elite, who are for a host of reasons seen as having repeatedly failed their constituents are no longer able to assume the role of flag carriers for a diverse community. In Mosul, the former governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi who was known to have aspirations in the Baghdad government, was widely held to blame - at least in part - for the city's fall to IS.

Those in Baghdad, figures such as Salim al-Jabouri, are tainted by alliances they struck with the Maliki administration before 2014. Many have amassed significant wealth while in office, and they are widely seen as out of touch and accused of corruption. Some go as far to refer to them as traitors.

"One of the main mistakes Sunni politicians made was failing their electoral bases by not delivering any of the promises they made during election campaigns," says Seloom. Sunni political parties, he says, must "re-evaluate their relationship with people on the ground in Sunni majority provinces. Many Arab Sunni voices argue that current Sunni politicians do not represent them."

But exactly who are the Sunni establishment being challenged by?

In Mosul, and Fallujah, local figures have taken the initiative to fill gaps left by federal government services on issues as wide as reconstruction, to waste collection. There is a wealth of potential leadership here; teachers, councillors, doctors - even soldiers.
The competition will be between veteran political figures and new emerging political groups which have emerged since June 2014

On a wider level, a major new Sunni political alliance is set to be announced in the coming weeks, supported in part by millionaire businessman Khamis Khanjar. Meanwhile, the collapse in support for Vice President Usama Al-Nujaifi's al-Mutahidoon coalition at the last election means there will be a number of Sunni parties vying for support in next year's elections.

The landscape is changing, but only time will tell to what exactly.

"The competition will be between veteran political figures and new emerging political groups which have emerged since June 2014," says Seloom.

Another wild card in the deck is the widespread cross-sectarian support that incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has managed to accrue, first through the recapture of Mosul, and more recently by retaking Kirkuk from Kurdish forces over the summer.

As one Sunni journalist, who stayed in Mosul throughout the IS reign, told me: "I will be the first to vote for Abadi, it is not about him being Sunni or Shia - he saved Iraq."

An adviser to the governor of Anbar echoed these statements: "We [Sunnis] respect what Abadi has done, for the first time we think this is a Shia we can vote for."

Assuming no new unexpected crisis quashes this nationalist sentiment, there is potential for a significant number of Sunnis in provinces like Nineveh and Anbar to vote for Abadi.

Abadi's Dawa party didn't stand in Nineveh at the most recent parliamentary elections, leaving Sunni parties to sweep up all the votes. Back then, it undoubtedly would have been a waste of resources. But if Abadi can find a local Sunni partner to run in conjunction with, or on his behalf, in Nineveh, then he may yet garner a significant number of votes from this Sunni heartland.

The 2018 elections remain a long way off, but for Iraq's Sunnis, despite the past and ongoing hardships, there is reason to be optimistic.

Next year will likely see some of the most competitive elections Iraq has seen; within the Sunni community the debate could significantly move away from identity politics and the established elite's power struggles towards a debate more focused on the many needs of Iraq's Sunnis.

 Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter formerly based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth