BASRA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s candidates look set for sweeping victories in provincial polls, a result that could overturn the post-Saddam political order and strengthen the hand of a leader once seen as weak.
Although official preliminary results will not be published for days, leaders of rival Shi’ite parties acknowledged that Maliki’s State of Law coalition appeared to be headed for a substantial win and perhaps a landslide in Shi’ite areas.
A government official close to the prime minister said State of Law appeared to have won in all nine southern Shi’ite provinces, as well as Shi’ite East Baghdad. “The others are competing for second or third,” he said.
If confirmed, the results would amount to a crushing defeat for religious parties that have run Shi’ite provinces with little heed to Baghdad since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
The prime minister, who campaigned hard with a nationalist law-and-order message in the weeks before Saturday’s vote, would have strong momentum in his bid to hold on to power in national elections later this year in the majority Shi’ite country.
“According to initial information, (Maliki’s) list has come first in Basra with 50 percent of the vote, (ours) took 20 percent,” said Furat al-Sheraa, the head in Basra of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), the party that has controlled most southern provinces since the U.S.-led invasion.
A source at Basra’s electoral commission said that the State of Law slate was indeed ahead in early counting in the city, Iraq’s second largest and source of most of its oil exports.
A senior figure in the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also acknowledged victory for Maliki, both in the south and in Sadr City, Baghdad’s giant Shi’ite slum and Sadr’s main power base in the capital.
“The first results of the elections show that the list of Maliki has swept the other lists, especially in Sadr City and some southern provinces,” the Sadrist figure said, asking that he not be named while discussing unofficial results. He said voters had backed the prime minister in response to better security and out of unhappiness with local incumbents.
Official results may not be definitive for up to a month, and some politicians cautioned against reading too much from early tallies. ISCI parliament member Jalal al-Din Saghir told Reuters it was too early to predict the outcome. But anecdotal evidence also points to success for Maliki, who was installed by larger Shi’ite religious parties in 2006 and in the past had little clout of his own in the powerful regional governments that run cities and towns.
Of dozens of voters throughout Sadr City interviewed by Reuters, nearly all said they picked the prime minister’s slate.
At Sadr City’s al-Chowadar coffee shop, a straw poll was unanimous. Everyone said they voted for “Abu Asraa”, referring to the prime minister by his daughter’s name. “He succeeded in changing our bad situation for the better. We trust him,” explained Haj Nassir al-Lami, an elderly man puffing on a water pipe.
Victory in Basra and Sadr City would mark an extraordinary turnaround. Less than a year ago, both areas were controlled by Sadr’s black-masked Mehdi Army fighters. Maliki’s troops backed by U.S. helicopters launched crackdowns in which hundreds died.
Notably, Maliki achieved his apparent election victory among Shi’ites despite a campaign that rigorously avoided religious themes in a country emerging from sectarian violence. ISCI, by contrast, made wide use of Shi’ite symbols and slogans.
Maliki favours a strong central state, while ISCI and some other Shi’ite groups have sought greater autonomy for the south, source of 80 percent of Iraq’s current oil production. The prime minister’s success would undermine their autonomy bid. But it could also herald pitfalls ahead. His many rivals are bound to focus on cutting him back down to size, said University of London Iraq expert Toby Dodge: “If he comes out of this too strong, that will trigger a sustained move against him.”