Iraq has much at stake in the next round of legislative elections, regardless of when it takes place. For one thing, the Iraqi people, weary after years of violence and upheaval, have pinned their hopes on the next vote to help usher in a new era for the country. For another, the elections will be a measure of Iraq's progress in restoring order after the bitter battle against the Islamic State. Legislative elections have long functioned as an indicator of the country's stability. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Shiites and minority communities, including Kurds, were sidelined from the electoral process, which was neither free nor fair. After Saddam's administration fell in 2003, turnout among the Sunni population dropped — to just 2 percent in Anbar province during the 2005 vote — as competing militias and al Qaeda attacked Sunni voters in an effort to discredit the elections. Though conditions improved in the 2010 and 2014 elections, neither vote was free of sectarian violence. Facing the momentous task of rebuilding the war-torn country, Iraq's government knows that the success of the next elections will be essential to prove its stability to the international community. To that end, al-Hakim has taken his pacific plan on a tour of the Middle East to try to convince Iraq's regional allies of the country's future prospects and win financial support for the costly reconstruction process ahead.
The Shifting National Alliance
But already, Iraqi parties' differences are starting to show. Though the National Alliance is still Iraq's main Shiite coalition, its constituent parties are competing for dominance within the bloc. Vice President Nouri al-Maliki recently discovered that his party, State of Law, is losing ground in areas where it used to command the most power. During a recent tour of Maysan, Basra and Dhi Qar provinces in southern Iraq, the former prime minister and founder of State of Law faced angry protesters, evidence of al-Maliki's waning influence in the area. In the 2014 elections, by contrast, State of Law handily won in these provinces, securing between 32 and 40 percent of the vote in each location. Al-Maliki's hostile reception is none too surprising, even in his former electoral strongholds. After all, he is best known today for presiding over Iraq during the Islamic State's incursion into the country; before that, many Iraqis associated him with corruption and empowering Shiites at the expense of the country's minority populations.
Nevertheless, he is still a powerful figure in Iraq's political system, and his influence is far-reaching. Al-Maliki used his clout in the judicial system to regain his position as vice president after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's anti-corruption campaigns swept him from office in 2015. Along with State of Law, which still dominates Iraq's 328-seat parliament with 92 seats, al-Maliki also heads the Reform Front party, albeit unofficially. Earlier in the year, that party spearheaded efforts to unseat prominent ministers from Iraq's government.
For other Shiite parties in the bloc — especially those led by Muqtada al-Sadr — State of Law's loss could be their gain. As al-Maliki's reputation has suffered in recent years, al-Sadr, whose supporters booed the vice president during his trip to southern Iraq, has steadily amassed influence despite his controversial past. Although the Shiite parties stand to benefit from banding together to pass legislation, they will have a hard time uniting their respective constituent pools given the deep mistrust between them.
Deepening Divides in Iraqi Kurdistan
A similar factional rivalry threatens to limit Kurdish parties' gains in the upcoming elections. Iraqi Kurdistan's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is finding itself increasingly at odds with the autonomous region's other political groups. Its main rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, for instance, has taken Baghdad's side in a dispute over the Kurdistan Regional Government's oil profit-sharing agreement with Iraq. In addition, a leader from the Gorran party recently criticized the KDP for its treatment of the peshmerga, provoking a backlash from the ruling party. As the rifts between the Kurdish parties widen, Arbil's internal divisions are becoming more stark than its differences with Baghdad.
In the runup to Iraq's next round of elections, rivalries will continue to emerge between the country's political parties, and alliances will keep shifting. But political infighting is a dramatic departure from sectarian violence — and for the Iraqi people, a welcome one. The coalition-building process, along with the preparations for the legislative vote, will help determine whether Iraq will continue reconciling its differences politically or will fall back into its pattern of sectarian conflicts.