Friday, March 26, 2010

Iraqi Elections and Political Puppetry

The Iraqi election results are coming out soon. The fact that almost no one is happy with the results means that it is probably legitimate. It's funny that Maliki is crying foul about "manipulations of voter results", considering that he is the sitting prime minister and is government personified.

One notable subject from Iraq is the meme of political puppetry in a democracy. America and some Iraqis consider several politicians to be Iranian puppets: Maliki, Sadr, Chalabi, most of SCIRI and Dawa. Similarly, the Iranians and some Iraqi Shiites consider Allawi to be an American puppet. Given the popular perception, how well do puppets perform in a democracy? In Iraq we find a great case study on this subject.

In a democracy, puppets have constraints on their behavior, because they have to get re-elected. They cannot run too far ahead of the popular will in favoring their patrons. Plus there is the natural checks and balances in a democratic system [hopefully]. [Of course we have the recent spectacle in the US where the Democrats are committing political near-suicides to pass healthcare reform. If a politician does not mind a political suicide, then most constraints disappear.]

So to get into a powerful position in a democracy, puppets have to first appeal to their domestic constituents. Having a foreign patron may help you get started on the political scene, but is of little help afterwards.

In a sense, Sadr is a failed Iranian investment in puppetry. Sadr's political party is a natural outgrowth of the network built by his father and family friends. As Nir Rosen documented in "In the Belly of the Green Bird", the party seems to be fully Iraqi. Sadr himself may be sympathetic to Iran, but he has little influence over the party his father built. The district chairmen and commanders are fully in charge of their local chapters.

The Iranian investment in puppetry also got bogged down in the Shiite political scene. The Iraqi insurgency is multi-faceted. In Baghdad and Anbar it almost completely followed the script of an ethnic cleansing. In the Shiite south, however, it was a class struggle: between the Najaf religious establishment/money class, and the underclass of Sadr city. We saw this played out again and again, in the battle of Najaf and the battle of Basra. Sadr's party represented the people of its namesake, while SCIRI and Dawa allied themselves with the Shiite upper class. SCIRI and Dawa seem to be more Iranian-influenced because their cadre trained in Iran before coming home. The Najaf upper class was also more favorable toward Iran because of Iranian tourists visiting Najaf. So SCIRI and Dawa were freer to execute Iranian commands.

So in this case, it is interesting to note that, while Sadr and SCIRI are in the same political coalition, Sadr candidates received far more votes than SCIRI ones. So in parliamentary politics Sadr party will be more dominant. SCIRI will probably split from Sadr in future elections to improve their fortune. Maliki is courting the Sadr bloc to form a coalition government, but readers need to remember that Maliki personally led the Iraqi Army to root out the Mahdi Militia in the 2008 battle of Basra. The bad blood is still there between the two. We'll see if Sadrists hate Maliki more than Allawi in the coming weeks.

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