Kanan Makiya analyzes Iraqi election in new Crown Center Brief

He looks at what's changed since the 2005 vote, and what it means for Iraq's future

Kanan Makiya

The Crown Center for Middle East Studies has published an analysis of this year’s Iraqi elections by Kanan Makiya, the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.

Click here to download a PDF version of Makiya's "The Iraqi Elections of 2010- and 2005"

The Baghdad-born Makiya is the author of “Republic of Fear” and “The Monument” about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and of "Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World."

He also is the leader and founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation, a nongovernmental organization based in Baghdad and the United States that is working to provide Iraqi society and the world with a view of the inner workings of the institutions of repression and social control that dominated all aspects of Iraqi life between 1968 and 2003.

BrandeisNOW recently talked with Makiya about his new brief.

BrandeisNOW: What were the most positive features of the March 2010 elections that you write about in the new Crown Center Brief?

Kanan Makiya: The most positive aspects were the attitude and consciousness of the public that were expressed in the results– the cautious willingness to break with the very strict identity politics that defined the 2005 elections, and the participation of large numbers of Sunnis, most of whom boycotted the previous elections. Voters were willing to cross ethnic lines, and they were demanding services. Parties had to stress their Iraqiness. The more sectarian parties made a greater pretense than ever before that they were Iraqi and not sectarian. This was an electorate that bought into the electoral process. They came out in very large numbers in the face of very difficult circumstances.

BrandeisNOW: And what aspects of these elections were most worrisome?

KM: What I would describe as the response of the political class to the changes in public attitudes. Instead of rising to the occasion, rising to level the electorate came up to, the political class regressed into sectarian, ethnic, party politics. They behaved far worse than electorate as a whole, as evidenced by the protracted negotiations and the determination to hold on to power that have characterized the still continuing attempts to form a new government. It is good that electorate threw out so many who had not delivered, and we have lot of new faces. But the political class has behaved cynically and selfishly, and has seemed to inculcate exactly what the electorate seemed to want to reject.

BrandeisNOW: What was the effect on the elections of the drop in the level of violence in Iraq?

KM: People did not vote their fears. They were able to be slightly more optimistic and vote on where they wanted the country to go, to vote their hopes rather than their fears.

BrandeisNOW: Why did violence drop?

KM: The major factor is that Iraqi security forces have grown enormously. They are the only institution in the country that is succeeding in breaking up terrorist networks. They are simply so large -- which is also a matter of concern. One of the interesting and disturbing features of the current situation is that the number of institutionally armed men has grown to a level equal to what it was in Saddam’s war-making days – a million armed men. That is very disturbing.

BrandeisNOW: Why?

KM: Because we are back to an institutional capability for violence that we never dreamed we would rise to again. There have been abuses – secret prisons, tortures --  and there will be abuses with those kinds of numbers.

BrandeisNOW: What was the role of the surge of U.S. troops in reducing the violence?

KM: The surge played a very important role in showing a determination to deal with the issues. But the Iraqis going along with the surge, the Sunnis turning against al Qaida were critical. Not that the military aspects were insignificant, but it was the politics of  the surge that really turned things around, not that the military aspects.

BrandeisNOW: You write about the fragmentation of the Shiite electoral bloc as an important feature in this election campaign, and as an obstacle to formation of the new government. So is this fragmentation good or bad?

KM: Good, I think. The Shia are the largest community in Iraq. The fragmentation meant they were not going to vote in strictly sectarian terms. That allowed for a degree of confidence in the minority communities that felt worried or threatened. The rise of the Shia terrified the Sunnis in the early years [after the fall of Saddam]. Once the Sunnis saw the Shia were not voting en bloc as Shiites, that gave them confidence that they too could cross sectarian boundaries. They were less threatened.

BrandeisNOW: What is the relationship between the decline in sectarian voting and the trend toward people voters choosing individual candidates rather than voting part lists?

KM: The tendency to vote for individuals rather than lists implies that local issues and needs are beginning to take precedence in voters’ minds. The decline in sectarianism helps voters look more critically at individual officeholders and their performances in office.

BrandeisNOW: The anti-U.S., religiously focused Sadrists seem to have been major beneficiaries of this trend, though. Why?

KM: They are playing a very smart game at the moment. Their leader is trying to build up his intellectual credentials in Shiite world, withdrawing from day-to-day politics, sitting and studying in Qom, while the electoral bloc that takes its orders from him is doing all this groundwork to get local candidates elected. It is interesting, and worrisome in some respects. I don’t think it means the Sadrists are suddenly more democratically inclined.

BrandeisNOW: What do you think the outlook is for the future?

KM: It’s very uncertain. The quality of the political class is the most important thing and right now that is very low. The fact that it has taken so many months, and we still can’t say what the new government is, means that there is a veil of secrecy despite the openness of the elections. Decisions are being made behind closed doors. These were truly free, even model, elections, cert for the Arab world, but there is also this terrible liability. Somehow the old structures of corruption and patronage networks are creeping back into politics. That is what is happening at the moment and it is a very worrisome development.

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