Voters Look Beyond Religion

Secularists’ promises of security, services and unity resonate with voters tired of overtly faith-based parties.

Voters Look Beyond Religion

Secularists’ promises of security, services and unity resonate with voters tired of overtly faith-based parties.

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009
Secular politics seem to be making a comeback in Iraq, where candidates with patriotic platforms trumped rivals from a more religious background in the battle to control local government.

The preliminary results from Iraq’s provincial elections indicated that largely secular alliances did surprisingly well in provinces such as Salahadin, Baghdad, Diyala, Wasit and Anbar.

Voters in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces largely rejected the overtly religious alliances in favour of lists that promised security, better services and strong central government.

The leaders of several lists – including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is known to be deeply religious – worked hard to keep their faith out of their campaigns.

The most prominent secular alliance, former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi National List, made great strides in several provinces, including Salahadin and Baghdad.

Meanwhile in Anbar, Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Project appears to have won a narrow victory over incumbent Islamists and tribal lists after it adopted a nationalist programme.

In Karbala, independent candidate Yousef Majid al-Habboubi shocked observers by beating Shia parties in the province, which is holy to Shias. He campaigned on his reputation as an efficient administrator, rather than on any religious credentials.

“The Iraqi public has undoubtedly changed in the past four years,” said Izat al-Shabandar, a member of parliament from Allawi’s coalition.

Some candidates who ran on sectarian and ethnic platforms in the 2005 elections changed their tune for the provincial polls, giving Iraqi voters “the ability to choose better candidates and disregarding sectarianism, ethnicity or ideology”, Shabandar said.

This may partly have been in response to a deeper discontent with the religious parties, whose tenure voters associate with the darkest years of sectarian war in Iraq. The secular campaign rhetoric may also have been encouraged by the pre-election ban on the use of religious symbols in the elections.

The ban was backed by Maliki, whose Dawa party has Islamist roots but successfully campaigned in the provincial elections by promising a strong, stable central government.

The Dawa-led State of Law alliance swept to power in ten provinces, including Baghdad and Basra. Though it was unable to garner a majority in any governorate, it unseated the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC, and other staunchly Shia parties with strong ties to the religious establishment.

Allawi’s coalition fared better this time than it has done in past election, though it did not outflank the religious parties.

The big gains were made by parties, like Dawa, that adopted a secular platform, rather than those that have an innately secular identity.

“The secular coalitions campaigned well, but they did not win enough seats,” said Riyadh al-Asadi, chair of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Basra University. “They won far less than big blocs like State of Law Coalition.”

Haidar al-Ibadi, a Dawa representative, told Asharq Alawsat newspaper this week that most Iraqis had not necessarily rejected religious leaders “but are against those who mix politics with religion”.

While sectarian-identified parties have gained substantial power in Iraq over the past few years, secularism is not new to the country. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government applied secular policies but also favoured minority Sunni Arabs, particularly those from his family and tribe.

Several politicians who did well in the polls – notably Allawi, Mutlaq and Habboubie – had brief careers in Saddam’s Ba’ath party, though they have long since distanced themselves from it.

Religious parties took power in 2005, but lost public support by failing to provide services or security. Voters in the 2009 provincial polls were also fed up with sectarianism, particularly the Sunni-Shia violence which has ravaged the country.

The January 31 provincial poll were the first elections since the sectarian conflict broke out.

“These elections surprised everyone,” said Qasim Daud, a secular parliamentarian. “We did not expect voters would go against the Islamic groups [which were elected] in the last two elections… The public has moved toward political blocs that use slogans that advocate putting the right man in the right position.”

According to Riyadh al-Asadi of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Basra University, Iraqis are still grappling with the concept of secularism. He said secular parties need to clarify their identity and values to get elected.

Maliki, Allawi and Mutlaq emerged stronger from these elections after campaigning for security and national unity.

However, patriotic and populist messaging did not work for Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who has sought to brand himself a nationalist leader strongly opposed to the US presence in Iraq.

Sadr endorsed independent candidates but did not run a coalition in the elections. He was unable to shake off his reputation as a sectarian leader with strong ties to Shia clerics and Iran – two associations that did not prove popular in this election.

With the elections over, the secularists and religious parties seem ready to set aside their differences to form coalitions.

SIIC, which like Sadr enjoys close ties with Iran and Shia Iraqi clerics, lost the most power in the election and is reportedly considering teaming up with Allawi. Maliki is said to be considering an alliance with Sadr.

The new provincial councils will inherit “serious challenges” in health, agriculture, education and services, according to Maysun al-Damaluji, a member of parliament with the Iraqi National List.

If they can overcome some of these challenges, the secularists could broaden their popularity in time for the parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Zaineb Naji is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
Frontline Updates
Support local journalists