(Bloomberg) -- After the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the military flare-up between Iran and Israel along the Syrian border, national elections in Iraq this weekend will be a crucial test of Iran’s regional influence. But the election will also unfold under the largely unrecognized but ominous shadow of one of the worst electoral court rulings anywhere in recent history.
Iraq’s electoral law is a complex and idiosyncratic method of securing proportional representation in Parliament. The system tends to favor the largest parties and solid voting blocs using a process so arcane that virtually no one outside of professional politicians and statisticians really understands how it works.
That’s bad enough. Even worse is that under existing Iraqi judicial rulings, the most meaningful politics take place after the voting.
Two elections back, in 2010, the prime minister at the time, Nuri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shiite Islamist, was narrowly defeated by a secular coalition led by the former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi, a nonsectarian Shiite whose al-Iraqiyya coalition included many Sunnis, got 91 seats in Parliament as opposed to 89 for the Maliki coalition. The next largest group had 70.
Most observers assumed that Allawi would therefore be granted the first opportunity to form a government. But for their own strategic reasons, the two dominant foreign powers in Iraq — the U.S. and Iran — both wanted a second term for Maliki.
The court ruled that right to form a government did not automatically go to the largest electoral coalition, as it does in virtually all countries with parliamentary systems. Instead, the court said, it could go to a bloc that could assemble the largest coalition after the election. On this basis and because neither side had won an outright majority, Maliki, with the backing of the U.S. and Iran, was given the first opportunity and retained his grip on power.
The result was a disaster. The administration of President Barack Obama was mystifyingly determined to stick with Maliki, claiming there were no other real options. Iran also pushed for him to stay in power because of his sectarian Shiite policies and slavishly pro-Iranian attitudes. His second term destroyed the gains of the U.S. military surge against al-Qaeda in Iraq and fueled the rise of Islamic State in Sunni-majority areas of the country.
Using this same ruling, they turned to the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who seemingly came from nowhere after the vote. He has emerged as a nationally oriented politician who alone is fielding candidates this year in all Iraqi provinces. Because he managed to undo some of the worst sectarian excesses of Maliki and presided over the defeat of Islamic State, he is expected to win the biggest bloc in Parliament.
However, because of the 2010 ruling, which is still in effect, unless a coalition wins an outright majority, or something very close, the real politics will begin after the voting as politicians scramble to construct the largest possible parliamentary bloc.
The political distortions are obvious. Any group, for example, that wants to camouflage the range of moderates and extremists in its own midst could simply divide before the election, only to reunite immediately afterwards. It becomes easy for all kinds of wolves to don sheep costumes during the election. Parliamentary politics naturally lend themselves to baroque machinations, but this invitation to post-election maneuvering is remarkable and dangerous.
This year that ruling is likely to prove especially problematic because of the extreme level of political fragmentation in Iraq following the collapse of Islamic State.
In the last three elections, the U.S. and Iran both supported Maliki during his two terms and then together turned to Abadi. But because Abadi has adopted a more independent and nonsectarian stance, Iran no longer supports him. Indeed, leaders of Tehran’s ultra-sectarian Iraqi Shiite militia proxies are posing a major electoral challenge.
Iraqi politics are now highly fragmented not only between, but within, sectarian and ethnic communities. There’s virtually no chance of anyone coming close to a parliamentary majority. And because of President Donald Trump’s vow to confront Iran throughout the region, the U.S. and Iran will certainly not be backing the same candidate this time.
The 2010 ruling is likely to make the process of forming a government even longer, more contentious, and more disconnected from the public will. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, a growing presence in Iraq, will be pitted against an angry and defensive Iran in a fight for influence. From this mess, someone will eventually cobble together a majority, but it is likely to be a dysfunctional crazy quilt of rivals and enemies opposed by Iran, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
The only good news is that because Iraq follows a French rather than an Anglo-Saxon legal tradition, overturning the terrible 2010 legal precedent would be relatively easy. Until that happens, Iraqi politics will be haunted by many demons, including its own Supreme Court’s blunder.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.