For a man once viewed as an American patsy and an innocuous transitional figure in Iraq's chaotic politics, Nuri al-Maliki has come a long way. He was no one's first choice when he became prime minister in April 2006, but Maliki has hung onto the job and grown steadily in stature. On Thursday, the country's electoral commission announced that, with 90 percent of votes counted, his political coalition triumphed in nine of 14 provinces where elections were held six days ago.
While not a candidate himself, Maliki saw his State of Law alliance emerge as the top vote getter in the provincial elections. The coalition topped competitors ranging from the political network inspired by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to Sunni Islamists to tribal parties in an election that monitors from the Arab League said took place in an atmosphere of "transparency and integrity." Voting was mostly peaceful in the country, which has seen a sharp decline in violence in recent months, with turnout estimated at 51 percent of eligible voters. (The 10 percent of the vote not yet tabulated were cast by the Iraqi Security Forces, prison inmates, hospital residents, displaced persons and others, and also includes contested ballots.)
The results may change the political calculus in the ravaged nation. They leave Maliki looming as a dominant figure ahead of national elections scheduled for the next year or so. More important, the election suggests that Iraqis are motivated more by pragmatism than by religion and tribalism, and may be maturing as voters. "People were saying, 'We're tired of you guys telling us about religion. We want services. We want stuff, not prayer'," says a Western adviser to the Maliki government who is not authorized to speak for the administration. "The big 'aha' is that all of a sudden the election became an issues-based election and not a religion- or affinity-based election."
Maliki himself may have set the tone. Long a partisan, narrowly focused Shiite politician who many feared would seek retribution against minority Sunnis who controlled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the prime minister instead positioned himself as a tough guy concerned above all with security. He also portrayed himself as someone willing to stand up to the United States. And yet his policies in the past year have hewed close to the American road map. He brought back the Iraqi Army, sought compromise with Sunnis and national reconciliation and went after the militias, Sunni and Shiite alike. He cast himself as El Cid, personally leading offensives in Mosul and Basra. He stood up to the Kurds, which may have unnerved the Americans, but played well with fellow Arabs.
And Maliki appears to have adjusted his own political modus operandi. While his political party, Dawa, is traditionally centralized, ideological and even rigid, Maliki apparently recruited candidates who were already seen as effective leaders in their provinces. And those candidates stressed their ability to get things done. "[The election results] suggest that the Iraqi citizen has such a level of awareness that he did not get affected by the media propaganda," Hassan al-Senaid, a Dawa Party member of Parliament, tells NEWSWEEK. "Instead, the Iraqi citizen chose who truly represents him and [things like] electricity had the final say."
Iraqis apparently looked past sectarianism and tribal concerns for candidates who could deliver. Voters inKarbala, a central-Iraq province that contains the holy city of the same name, bucked the pro-Maliki trend, relegating the Maliki list to third place. They instead elected the slate led by Yusuf Magid al-Haboobi, reputedly a former Baathist. Haboobi has little renown nationally, but is known as an effective mayor of small towns in the area. The current provincial government, meanwhile, is in Dawa hands and is accused of incompetence and corruption. The conclusion: a record of ability to provide basic services trumped party labels.
"This is extraordinary for Iraq," says the Western adviser. "They're setting a new paradigm and have turned some huge corners. This confirms that the war ended in December and Iraq's new era began the first of January, and that it is happily charting a new democratic course." For Dr. Tahseen Sheikhly, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, the fact that no party or coalition won by huge numbers—the highest percentage the Maliki alliance won was 38 percent, in Baghdad—suggests no one party will dominate the provincial councils. "Power will be balanced," he tells NEWSWEEK.
How the country manages that balancing act will be another test in the months ahead. While Maliki's alliance was the big winner, the Sadrists and Islamists also performed well, even though small religious parties lost ground. Candidates allied with Sadr, and those from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, placed second or third in several provinces, including Baghdad (Sadrists in second place, although with only 9 percent of the vote); Basra (SCIRI, with 11.6 percent compared with Maliki's 37 percent); Najaf (SCIRI, behind Maliki by less than 2 percentage points); both Thi Qar and Missan, where the Sadrists were close seconds; and Qadissiya and Wassit, where SCIRI trailed the Mailiki slate by a few points.
Maliki and his associates are Islamist as well, but their relationship with the Sadrists has been adversarial, with Sadr at various points urging his supporters to rise up against the government. "Our alliances in the coming stage will be with those who believe in the state of law and in implementing the constitution and the right of citizens to exercise their rights," al-Senaid, the Dawa M.P., says when asked about working with the Sadrists. "Whoever believes in that will be our ally." Few believe Sadrists and Maliki's coalition are anywhere near the same page.
And there are a few other trouble spots. In Nineveh, 48.4 percent of the vote was won by the National Hadba slate, a group of mostly Arab nationalists who want to reduce the provincial influence of the Kurds, who placed second with 25.5 percent. The two groups could collide as the country prepares for its next vote, for a national Parliament. Indeed, the Kurdish issue remains a problem deferred. The Jan. 31 election did not cover four provinces—three that comprise the Kurdish Autonomous Region and a fourth, Kirkuk, that is the subject of a bitter dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, which insists the entire province must be part of its domain.
The provincial elections kicked off a political season that will continue until national elections are held, somewhere between the end of 2009 and the beginning of spring 2010. Parties and alliances will spend the upcoming months trying to duplicate or better their local performance at the national level. For Maliki and his associates, the question is whether they will be able to harness the strategies employed in their provincial win to guarantee the prime minister another term at the helm. For Iraq, the question is whether myriad parties and interest groups can forge a new democratic politics—without backsliding into recrimination and chaos.