Prominent Politicians Lose Out in Election

Iraqi voters elect fresh faces and reject incumbents accused of failing to deliver.

By Ali Kareem in Baghdad (ICR No. 330, 2-Apr-10)

Several high-profile politicians failed to secure parliamentary seats in the country’s recent election, a sign analysts say signals voter frustration with incumbents and the political establishment.

Among those who lost out in the election were the ministers of defence and interior, heads of parliamentary committees and two former speakers of parliament. Many other powerful politicians, including the outgoing speaker, did not win enough votes on their own but managed to secure seats with the help of their respective coalitions.

The new parliament will see a huge number of fresh faces with only around 60 of Iraq’s 325 new legislators having served previously.

Analysts say the trend underlines an anti-incumbent sentiment among voters, though some parties, sensing voter unhappiness with current members of parliament, did not re-nominate sitting legislators as candidates.

“[Iraqis] were politically aware and rejected figures who offered nothing to them over the past few years,” said Fadhil al-Mamori, a political sciences professor at Baghdad University. “They didn’t lend a hand to save the Iraqi people from their miserable conditions, and instead were busy with their personal agendas.”

Ahmad al-Tamimi, a Baghdad-based political analyst with the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies, said, “Iraqi voters chose to elect new faces because they reached the conclusion that [incumbents] are useless. That’s why prominent figures lost.”

The March 7 parliamentary poll marked the first time Iraqis could choose candidates. In the previous 2005 ballot, they voted for lists which would then select legislators. Tamimi said the latter were essentially political appointees who “did not have any impact in parliament”.

“All signs indicate that the new parliament will be much better than the previous one, as voters chose specific candidates rather than lists,” he said.

More than a dozen prominent figures lost out in the election, including former parliamentary speakers Hajim al-Hasani and Mahmood al-Mashhadani.

Ali al-Lami, a member of parliament and top official in a controversial de-Baathification commission – and who championed an anti-Baathist platform during his campaign - won just 704 votes, woefully short of the average vote threshold of 35,000 for a parliamentary seat.

The commission banned 145 candidates from running in the election, including representatives of the Iraqiya coalition which won 91 seats nationwide, the most of any bloc.

“I didn’t expect this loss,” Lami said. “I thought I could win as I am from a well-known family with an honourable and historic past. I was a member of the opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime and I worked to eradicate Baathist [power] after the fall.”

Six ministers, including the minister of defence, Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi, and the minister of interior, Jawad al-Bolani, failed to win seats.

The losses dealt a severe blow to the credibility of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Maliki, whose State of Law alliance won 89 seats, has claimed fraud marred the election and cost votes for some of his top officials.

Iraq’s elections commission said fraud was not widespread and has rejected Maliki’s appeals for a recount.

While many of his allies were unable to secure seats, Maliki himself won nearly 623,000 votes in Baghdad. Ayad Allawi, who heads Iraqiya, captured more than 407,500 in the capital, where competition for the province’s 68 seats was especially fierce.

Most winning candidates did not garner enough votes on their own, instead securing a place in parliament under an election rule that allows coalitions to transfer the votes of members who exceeded the threshold for a seat to the next-highest member on their list.

With most votes going to powerful figures and lists, smaller coalitions did not fare well.

Samaraie, the outgoing parliamentary speaker, won just 9,010 votes but was able to pick up a seat with the help of votes from his Tawafiq coalition.

Bolani’s Unity Alliance of Iraq, one of the smaller lists, failed to secure any seats. The interior minister, who prior to the election was touted as a possible candidate for prime minister, won just 3,000 votes.

Ibrahim Sumaidai, a lawyer and political commentator, said that many candidates including Bolani turned off voters by “overrating themselves” and acting “politically arrogant”.

Despite their losses, influential figures are still manoeuvring for power. The prime minister is permitted to appoint a certain number of ministers who are unelected.

Bolani is vying for a ministerial post, according to a source close to him, and Obaidi, the outgoing defence minister who ran with Maliki, is jockeying to lead the ministry again. Lami, meanwhile, told IWPR he will continue serving on the de-Baathification commission.

Some politicians may be able to ensure re-election through seven compensation seats awarded by the election commission to the top four coalitions - Iraqiya, State of Law, the Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdistan Alliance. The head of the Kurdistani Alliance in parliament, Fouad Massum, is one of the most prominent figures fighting for a compensation seat.

While some praised the election results as a sign of strengthening democracy in Iraq, others warned that with so many new legislators, the new parliament may not function effectively.

“[It] will fail to meet the expectations of the Iraqi people because it has inexperienced figures,” Mashhadani said. “If the former parliament was weak, then the new one will be paralysed.”

Ali Kareem is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.