Baghdad: Secular Comeback?

The results for Baghdad will tell us whether secularism is on the comeback in Iraqi politics. Ideological secularists are expected to do better in the capital than anywhere else in the country given the higher levels of education, cross-sectarian assimilation, presence of non-Muslim minorities, and political activism that Baghdad brings together.

The new provincial council of Baghdad is to have 57 seats, up from 51, with 2,482 candidates in the running. The current council is divided among the Hakims with 28 seats, the Da’awa Party with 11, and Fadhila at 6. There are no Sunnis represented in any real sense on the current council, but this will change with the new elections. In the parliamentary elections of 2005 which the Sunnis took part in, the sectarian specific Shi’a list took 58 percent of the vote, while its Sunni equivalent drew only 20 percent, prompting outrage from the latter over what they believe was evident fraud in a city where Sunnis consider themselves the plurality of the population, a belief precipitated by the symbolism of Baghdad as a former imperial capital of a Sunni caliphate. It is likely that while the Shi’a vote may get fragmented among competing Islamist and secularist slates, the call to Baghdad’s Sunnis to vote for sectarian specific lists to show strength in numbers will resonate. It should also be remembered that Baghdad bore the brunt of inter-sectarian killings and reprisal killings, and it was the scene of widespread population displacement. Therefore the Sunnis have something to prove in Baghdad.

However, one new element of Sunni politics, which is the relative political clout of the ex-insurgents, will not be measured clearly as the most prominent of these groups, reorganized as the Sons of Iraq (as opposed to tribal ‘Awakenings’) are running on the major neo-Ba’athist slate rather than on a list of their own.

But sectarian-specific slates, whether Sunni neo-Ba’athist or Islamist, or Shia Islamist, are likely fretting that a trend may emerge from Baghdad whereby a strong showing by non-sectarian, or ‘patriotic’ slates, may have wide-ranging immediate and long-term repercussions for more narrowly-based identity politics. Baghdad, being the center of centralized government and Iraq’s most cosmopolitan city, and certainly the place with the highest incidence of mixed sectarian and ethnic households (couples that usually met in Baghdad’s universities or mixed neighborhoods or government offices), may give a hearing to political wildcards such as the secular liberal democrat Mithal al-Alusi, who occupies his party’s sole seat in parliament (won in Baghdad), and whose base may expand on the provincial council. The third candidate for his slate in Baghdad is Madeeha Hassan al-Musawi, chosen as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential world figures in 2008.

Other secular politicians whose slates may win a number of seats are Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi, both from old Baghdadi families. But Chalabi is not banking on secular support to win; he is fishing for subtle support from the Sadrists, who wield their strongest base in Baghdad’s Sadr City and do not seem to be fielding any candidates directly associated with them. The Sadrist leadership may pick a couple of slates at the eleventh hour and inform their supporters to vote for them. That is why Chalabi has picked Rahim al-Darraji, a Sadrist functionary who served as the former sub-governor (qaim-maqam) of Sadr City, to put together his electoral slate for Baghdad.

Yet given that such as large number of Baghdad’s residents are employed by the state, a statist tendency could influence voters to cast their support for what they know and whoever advocates for a strong centralist state, which would be Prime Minister’s Maliki’s slate. That said, the Hakims still enjoy wide popularity in important Shia mercantile hubs such as Karrada, and their patronage network is unrivaled, so it is unlikely that Islamists in general would cede much ground to emerging Shia secular challengers, or to non-sectarian slates.

It is expected that a small number of seats may be won by the unified Kurdish slate that is relying on the large number of Faylis (Shi’a Kurds) and the 150,000 ethnic Kurds who live in Baghdad (state employees or retirees) to carve out a role on the provincial council. Several slates are pandering specifically to the Faylis, who are estimated to be 300,000 in number, including the Shi’a Islamists who used to be able to count on this demographic in the past but recent tensions between Maliki and the Kurds may have heightened the ethnic allegiances of the Faylis at the expense of their sectarian identity.

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