Iraq's micro parties could play key role

Shiites and Kurds look to be the big winners of this month's vote, but tiny parties could emerge as power brokers.

With election results firming gradually and violence returning quickly, Iraqis now face the challenge of forging a multiparty democracy in one of the Middle East's most diverse countries.

What matters now is not just how big the winners win, but how well those with limited success can accept election gains that fall far short of expectations. At the same time, Iraq's strongest emerging power - religious Shiite parties - may have the most difficult challenge of all: making room for minority parties so as to maximize inclusiveness and minimize incentive for refueling the insurgency and Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.

Indeed, Iraq's first democratically elected four-year parliament promises to be something of a crazy quilt of Middle Eastern politics with approximately 12 parties, seven of which would hold anywhere from one to five seats. With major parties disputing the results of the Dec. 15 vote - Sunnis in particular are dismayed by the number of seats early numbers indicate they will get, as are secular Shiites - minor players could carve out key roles in the coalition-building process. Although many of these are virtual micro parties, some could hold the power to make or break a constellation of political parties trying to form a coalition.

"How positive could it possibly be to have just Shiites and Kurds running the government?" asks Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni politician, of the two largest blocs of vote-getters that began meeting Tuesday in the northern city of Arbil to discuss plans for coalition building. The two groups said they would work to include Sunnis and secular Shiites in a broad-based national unity government.

According to preliminary estimates, Mr. Alusi's Iraqi Nation Party will probably get one seat in the parliament, but he says he's received calls discussing the possibility of a ministerial appointment in the government-to-be.

Other tiny parties that will sit in the parliament run the gamut from a Christian party to the Yezidis (an ancient Kurdish religion) to the Turkmen to the "Progressives," a party of followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Although final results have not been announced, it is already clear who the largest vote-getters will be.

A triad of Shiite religious parties, already at the helm since an interim government was forged last May, should take about 130 of the 275 available seats. Their allies, the Kurdish political parties, will follow as a distant second, with about 52 seats. A coalition of Sunni Islamic parties comes in third, with approximately 41. After that comes the party of secular Shiite Iyad Allawi - the former prime minister who was favored by Washington - who will have about 24 seats, down from the 40 he now enjoys. A hard-line Sunni party seen as sympathetic to the insurgency and led by Saleh Mutleq is expected to get from nine to 11 seats.

But many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, are dismayed by the election results so far, claiming that ruling Shiites rigged the polls. Amid more than 1,000 complaints of the use of force or fraud at polling stations, the Sunni coalition as well as Mr. Allawi have demanded a new vote in some areas. Iraq's election commission has indicated that such a massive recount is unlikely, and a United Nations official said Wednesday that there is no justification for a rerun of the vote.

The Sunni alliance demanded earlier this week that the Shiite bloc hand over 10 seats to even out the playing field, but the Shiites refused. And after an election lull, Iraq is back to multiple bombings a day, while there have been several protests calling for a recount.

One problem lies in inaccurate perceptions of ethnic populations.Reliable census figures do not exist, but all three votes this year - including interim elections in January and a referendum on the constitution this fall - mirror approximately the same population breakdown. Yet many Sunnis, who have grown used to being in Iraq's ruling class, do not view themselves as a minority.

"You can't say Sunnis are a minority in this country," argues Nabeal Mohammed Younis, a Baghdad University professor and political adviser.

Mr. Younis points out that Kurds are mostly Sunni. But at the ballot box, Kurds identified first and foremost as Kurds, leaving Sunni Arabs with third-place status. Sunni Arabs are also worried that Kurds and Shiites will fight for a federal, decentralized Iraq, which would leave Sunnis with the least oil-rich region.

Younis is not optimistic that smaller parties can have much impact, given the backdrop ofviolence. "It will be very hard for them to go against the majority. The bigger parties will probably buy their votes, and if they refuse, they'll be assassinated as easy as that," he says. "You can't talk about democracy in a country where there's no security."

But others, particularly some of the country's religious minorities, believe that they do hold the power to have some significant impact on Iraq's next government. Yunadum Kana is the head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement's party, Rafideen (Two Rivers), a secular-liberal group that swept up about 85 percent of the Christian vote. Mr. Kana expects to be one of several political parties that will push for major revisions in the constitution to enhance women and minority rights, and clarify the role of Islamic religious law.

"People voted for their religious and ethnic leaders this time, but it's too bad, really. The reality is that the Iraqi people are a diverse group," Kana says. "We have to bring back the mentality that we are brothers and we are part of the country."

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