An interesting piece of information that emerges from the newly released list of candidates for Iraq’s 30 April general elections is that at least a dozen ministers and MPs previously considered part of the State of Law coalition will contest the elections on other tickets than that of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
It makes sense to structure the discussion of these apparent defections from State of Law with respect to the degree to which they truly constitute a challenge to Maliki. Firstly, there are some lists that are so loudly loyal to Maliki that one might suspect he doesn’t mind them running separately. An example is list 240 associated wih Saad al-Mutallabi, a staunch Maliki supporter. Named the “Movement of Youth for the State of the Hegemony of the Law”, it is running in Baghdad and Najaf. With Maliki featuring prominently on its election posters, it seems more like an auxiliary than an enemy, even though one cannot help wonder why Maliki would truly want to deliberately split his own vote. (A recurrent theme in the debate on this is the misguided belief that the new Iraqi elections law offers better prospects for smaller parties. It doesn’t.)
In a similar category is list 230. It is focused on two State of Law MPs: Ihsan al-Awwadi (Qadisiyya) and Haytham al-Jibburi (Babel). The list is running in Basra, Mid-Euphrates and Diyala. Originally this movement emerged as the creation of former government spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh who himself moved on to ISCI before these elections (though without appearing on their final candidate list). Whereas the schism between Dabbagh and Maliki appears to be final, pro-Maliki slogans are prominent in this successor party: Jibburi, for example, uses the slogan “hand in hand with Prime Minister Maliki” in his campaign.
Other independent candidacies within the State of Law group of politicians seem less friendly to Maliki, and at least two of them could potentially be somewhat substantial.
Firstly there is list 228, headed by Izzat Shahbandar as candidate no. 1 in Baghdad. It is also running in Wasit, Basra, Dhi Qar and Karbala. The list also includes former Iraqiyya member Abd al-Khadar Tahir, reflecting perhaps the fact that Shahbandar was formerly one of the Maliki aides considered most sympathetic to the idea of cooperating with Sunnis and secularists. Judging from the make-up of his list, though, the successes in this respect north of Baghdad remain limited, even after the split from Maliki.
Second there is list 211, associated with Sami al-Askari. It will run in most Shiite-majority governorates as well as in Diyala. Another leading figure on the list is Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi. Given the connection to Najaf, the list has links to Shiite religious circles in Iraq’s holy cities. At the same time these are politicians with a record of dialogue with the Americans and the West, perhaps more so than some of the more Iran-sympathetic circles within State of Law.
Other new lists based on defections from Maliki seem more limited to personalities and localities.
Firstly there is Ali Fayyad and his list 226 running in Baghdad and with a few candidates in Najaf also. This is essentially Ali Fayyad’s personal creation. Judging from its posters, the list is apparently trying to appeal to tribal electorates in and around the Iraqi capital.
Secondly there is former minister of state for security and current MP Shirwan al-Waeli with list 284. It will be running in his home province of Dhi Qar only after initial negotiations to have him as part of the Askari-Zurfi group appear to have failed.
Thirdly there is minister of state Safa al-Din al-Safi, running list 201 in his own hometown Basra as well as in Wasit. It seems more detached from Maliki than one might expect given Safi’s sometimes key role in fixing problems for Maliki in the past. Safi has some links to the religious leadership in Najaf whose calls for “change” have been interpreted as a hint that a shakeup of the current government is needed.
Fourthly there is Jawad Kazim al-Buzuni and list 238 running in Basra, Dhi Qar, Wasit, Babel and Baghdad. Apart from its outspoken, sometimes federalist key figure from Basra, the list comprises mostly academics with relatively low profiles.
While the above statistics of defections are remarkable, equally important is perhaps the fact of relative dissipation – geographically and organizationally alike. Perhaps the bigger challenge to Maliki consists of those MPs who did not start their own new list but instead jumped to an existing enemy: Muwatin, dominated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Ammar al-Hakim. They include at least the following: Janan Abd al-Jabbar Yasin (Basra), Hussein al-Assadi (Basra), Ali Kurdi al-Husseini (Karbala; now on Muwatin list in Baghdad), Manal Hamid al-Musawi (Karbala), and Ahmad Habib al-Abbasi (Babel).
It has been suggested that it is the acceptance of post-election bloc formation in Iraqi parliamentary politics (following the precedent of 2010 and the disputed supreme court ruling enabling this) that has prompted so many State of Law politicians to try their luck on their own this time. But as long as the numbers of MPs affiliated with each bloc count as much as they do in Iraq – both practically and in terms of prestige – it is somewhat difficult to take at face value the talk of friendly and temporary divorces emanating from some of the players involved in these developments. And with respect to the defections to Muwatin, in particular, there can be no doubt that this is bad news for Maliki. The likely outcome of all of this is a reduction of Maliki’s total bloc size and therefore his stature. Additionally, these acts of defection also tell important stories about how people whose livelihoods depend on the outcomes of these elections think the result will shape up.