Tribes, Political Events, and the Iraqi Elections: A Shifting Dynamic


Tribes have lengthy been acknowledged as a key participant in Iraqi politics. But, because the Oct. 10 elections strategy, the massive tribal gatherings and celebrations at which the nation’s political blocs would usually search to courtroom tribes and sheikhs are noticeably absent. Not like previous years, political leaders should not tripping over one another to go to tribal mudhaief, or visitor homes, placed on lavish feasts, and distribute items, from pistols to plots of land, in the hunt for tribal help.

It will be a mistake, nonetheless, to see this as proof that tribal energy has diminished. As a substitute, current political modifications have allowed tribes to push for a brand new and doubtlessly extra highly effective position. By positioning themselves politically because the “true representatives of the individuals,” tribes are searching for to loosen the grip of the events, or on the very least to reframe their relationships to them so as shift from being a purely mobilizing drive that serves the pursuits of the get together, to turning into extra assertive political actors in their very own proper.

There are two fundamental causes for this. Firstly, in mild of the overall antipathy in direction of the political class, particularly following the protests that erupted in October 2019, tribes are cautious of being seen to be partaking too intently or too publicly with the nation’s politicians. That is significantly the case among the many primarily Shiite tribes of the middle and south, which is the place the protests had been brutally put down, and the place tribes are attempting to distance themselves, publicly not less than, from the political blocs. Secondly, the introduction of a brand new election regulation, which does away with the list-based voting system and will increase the variety of constituencies, thereby favoring native candidates, has led to a shift within the dynamic between the political blocs and tribes, opening extra space for tribes to claim themselves and impose their very own agendas.

Whereas tribes are nonetheless only one actor amongst many, these elections have the potential to present them better bargaining energy. On this approach, the elections will function an essential check of whether or not tribes can play a much bigger position within the formal political enviornment going forwards.

Marriage of Comfort 

Tribes have all the time represented a big constituency for Iraq’s political blocs, particularly in these areas the place the latter have restricted attain. It’s right here that tribes have historically labored hand-in-hand with political blocs to safe the election of sure candidates who will serve the pursuits of each. Outdoors of the principle city facilities, tribes nonetheless maintain sway and affect, and even within the cities they continue to be a potent collective drive and social actuality. Describing this affect, a number of sheikhs invoked the identical phrase:  tribes are an “electoral crane that raises politicians to energy.”

This doesn’t imply that tribes are static and unchanging. Reasonably, they’re complicated and shifting entities that evolve and adapt in response to the altering political and safety setting. They’re additionally supremely pragmatic. Whereas tribes are sometimes depicted as being in opposition to the state and to modernization, all through historical past they’ve been keen to work with whoever is in energy to additional their pursuits.

This has included working with the primarily Shiite political blocs which have dominated Iraq’s political scene since 2005. This makes for a curious alliance provided that, just like the nationalists earlier than them, political Islamists adhere to an ideology that doesn’t sit comfortably with tribal values. Political Islam’s aspiration to the ummah as a complete and undifferentiated group of believers rubs up in opposition to the tribal attachment to kinship, which, within the minds of tribesmen, tends to trump faith. Tribes are additionally broadly secular in orientation and have tended to draw back from the formal political enviornment. As Sheikh Adnan Danbous of the Kenana tribe instructed me, “Political Islamists are eager on utilizing tribes however the irony is that they don’t like tribes. They’re in opposition to them of their discourse.”

But varied Shiite blocs have gone out of their option to courtroom tribes, significantly within the middle and south, organising tribal workplaces in virtually each political physique and state establishment in a bid to succeed in out past their restricted constituencies. This wooing of tribes has been most obvious throughout the run-up to elections. With electoral participation tending to be greater in rural and semi-rural areas than within the massive city facilities, the events know that the surest option to success is to have interaction tribal help forward of the polls. As Danbous noticed, “Political events say tribes are backwards and can’t enter politics, but they use them when elections come alongside.”

This doesn’t imply that tribes have stood behind a selected get together or political bloc. As Ali Juwad Witwit has argued, there was no unified political orientation inside most tribes because the Fifties. Reasonably, tribesmen are cut up throughout completely different political currents, with the sheikh not in any place to dictate to the tribe methods to vote. Nevertheless, on the native degree, tribal sheikhs and alliances have been in a position to steer the overall course of their tribe in direction of a selected candidate in return for the promise of jobs and providers in usually bereft and underdeveloped areas. In different phrases, the sheikh supplies the votes and the get together supplies the products in what’s essentially a wedding of comfort.

But whereas the tribe and the get together have typically agreed collectively upon specific candidates who will stand on the get together’s record, the get together has often had the higher hand. Given its capability to siphon off state funds in trade for tribal help, and to manage the list-based voting system, the get together has typically known as the pictures. As Iraqi researcher Ammar al Amiri defined to me in an interview, “The tribes present the candidate and help him with votes, however the political get together provides items, cash for the marketing campaign and for promotions that make sure the candidate can win.” As such, the tribe has been extra of a mobilizing drive than a companion.

It is because of this that the pre-election interval has usually been characterised by politicians making showy visits to tribes and sheikhs of their mudhaief and attending massive gatherings the place tribal rituals are celebrated and large feasts consumed. Typically on this course of, candidates “search to look subsequent to the tribal leaders,” “put on clothes particular to a area or tribe,” or declare “loyalty to [the tribe], glorify its position and historical past, and pledge to defend its pursuits.”

The “October Impact”

The run-up to the 2021 elections, nonetheless, is proving to be considerably completely different. Tribes have sought to distance themselves, publicly not less than, from the events. The large celebrations and public visits by political leaders are both not occurring or have been toned down. That is very true within the central and southern governorates that had been gripped by mass protests from October 2019 onwards. Iraqis who took to the streets to precise their frustration at dire dwelling situations and widespread corruption had been brutally put down in a approach that has not been forgotten. As Sheikh Raed Frieji of the Freijat tribe in Basra instructed me in August, “There are some visits by some political leaders to among the sheikhs to attempt to purchase votes, however after the 2019 demonstrations, individuals are not simply led or tricked.”

Certainly, regardless of being sure into the political system, many tribes in these areas stood with the demonstrators throughout the uprisings, and offered materials help within the type of transport, meals, and, above all, safety. As Sheikh Ali Saddoun, tribal affairs adviser to the pinnacle of the parliament, defined, “We intervened to cease the safety forces from utilizing excessive violence in opposition to the protestors. The tribes’ stance is all the time with the demonstrators if their sons are subjected to killing.”

As such, many tribes in these areas had been reluctant to ally themselves too intently or too publicly with political leaders who’re held chargeable for the occasions of October 2019. Sheikh Dargham al Maliki of the Beni Malik tribe, who’s standing as a candidate, famous that “as sheikhs, we’re hesitant to obtain sure politicians.” As a substitute, tribes are positing themselves publicly because the defenders of the individuals in opposition to a corrupt and inept political elite. In al Maliki’s phrases, “The sheikh is the closest to society. He’s in contact with individuals; he listens to their issues … Politicians solely attain out to individuals at election time after which they disappear.”

Surge of Independents

Maybe extra importantly, Iraq’s new election regulation, which was handed in December 2019 as a sop to protestors’ calls for, has modified dynamics on the native degree. This regulation divides the nation into 83 constituencies, a substantial improve from the earlier three elections, the place Iraq’s 18 governorates had been designated as single districts. It additionally does away with list-based voting, that means that votes will now go on to the candidate in every constituency reasonably than being distributed amongst events or electoral lists. Sheikh Jamal Fareed al Hmaidawi, who’s standing as an unbiased candidate in Diwaniya, defined the significance of this: “Within the earlier elections, the voters was once with confronted with selecting the get together. Now they’ll select the candidate.”

This modification was designed to cease the domination of enormous events and blocs, making it simpler for smaller events or independents to acquire seats within the parliament. The brand new regulation has certainly opened the door to a surge of unbiased candidates. This time, 789 independents have put themselves forwards, representing an enormous improve on the earlier two elections. Within the 2014 and 2018 elections mixed, solely two unbiased candidates succeeded in successful seats. Though these independents signify a combination of people, together with militia leaders and civil society activists, some tribal figures have additionally thrown their hats into the ring. A few of these are tribal sheikhs, reminiscent of al Hmaidawi in Diwaniya or Sheikh Alaa Mahdi al Zubaidi in Baghdad. As a rule, nonetheless, they’re influential tribal figures and notables, or ajaweed. A few of these figures might have stood in earlier elections as a part of get together lists, however at the moment are opting to go it alone within the hopes that the load of their tribes, together with the modified public temper, will carry them to the parliament. It’s notable {that a} survey carried out by the Bayan Centre in April 2021 discovered that 83.3 % of respondents stated they would like to vote for an unbiased candidate who is just not affiliated to any political get together.

Standing as an unbiased is just not a call to be taken frivolously provided that unbiased candidates are coming below vital intimidation and strain, usually from Shiite militias with hyperlinks to political events. However the brand new circumstances have clearly prompted some tribal parts to take their likelihood and go it alone nonetheless.

A New Dynamic

This doesn’t imply that there aren’t nonetheless sheikhs and tribal figures sticking with tried and examined strategies of standing on get together platforms. This contains males who’re highly effective figures in their very own proper reminiscent of al Maliki, who’s standing for the State of Legislation Alliance in Basra, and Sheikh Thaar Mukheef al Kitab of the Jibour tribe, standing for the State of Legislation Alliance in Babel. Nevertheless, the dynamic has modified. With candidates now being immediately elected by voters in their very own native areas, these tribal figures may have a better say and won’t essentially be the compliant figures they as soon as had been. As has occurred on the native degree, tribal figures who’re elected to native governance constructions on get together platforms have usually ended up representing the pursuits of their tribe greater than these of the events. One thing comparable may effectively happen following these nationwide elections.

For sure, there are different complicating components at play. In some areas, the brand new constituency boundaries lower by means of tribal strains, weakening the facility of sure clans and tribes, particularly the smaller ones. Within the 2018 parliamentary elections for instance, Basem Khashan, a member of parliament and the brother of the pinnacle of the Barkat tribe, acquired virtually 20,000 votes, round one third of which got here from his tribe. Underneath the brand new regulation, his tribe has been cut up between two completely different constituencies. Thus, though he has nominated himself as an unbiased in one among these constituencies, he has misplaced a big chunk of the tribal vote.

Total, nonetheless, the events’ grip has been loosened and there’s better scope for tribes to be empowered. As al Hmaidawi put it, “The brand new regulation opened house for a extra balanced illustration. Earlier than, the get together was the one which selected the candidate and manipulated the votes and imposed its will. Now, the regulation permits individuals to vote for candidates who’re essentially the most acceptable for the world.” Or, within the assured opinion of Sheikh Mansour Tamimi from Basra, “After all once you dwell in an space, and folks such as you in that space, they usually belief you, and also you present providers to them, they’ll vote for you. I’m the closest man to them so they might vote for me.”

Testing Floor

This new local weather doesn’t imply that the events have given up attempting to woo tribes or that the wedding of comfort between tribes and the events will disappear. The principle blocs know that in massive swathes of the nation, the place their attain is restricted, tribal help remains to be a prerequisite for energy, and no get together will be capable to muster sufficient seats with out getting tribes on board.

Nevertheless, the smaller constituency map signifies that tribes can be in a greater place to claim themselves vis-à-vis these blocs. Whereas tribes, by their very nature, won’t ever signify a cohesive political drive, and whereas they don’t seem to be in any place to radically alter the political panorama, this election may function an essential testing floor for tribes to play a bigger and extra assertive position within the formal political enviornment. Certainly whereas a lot has been manufactured from how the Sadrists may reshape the political enviornment by means of these elections, one other subtler change can also be happening that might see tribes emerge as extra highly effective political gamers.

This modification may mark the beginnings of a problem to the political monopoly of the factions which have looted the state for not less than the previous 15 years. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely to advance democracy in Iraq. Tribes are hardly bastions of democracy, and their fundamental purpose is to exert better affect over their very own areas and affairs. Whereas many tribal sheikhs might castigate the events, there’s nothing to recommend that, in the event that they emerge as a stronger political drive, they gained’t additionally search to make use of the state as a car to advance their very own pursuits.

Alison Pargeter is a senior analysis affiliate on the Royal United Companies Institute and a senior affiliate on the international consulting agency Menas Associates. She has written extensively on North Africa and the Center East, with a selected deal with Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, and Egypt. 

Picture: Xinhua (Picture by Khalil Dawood)


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