Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Shi'ite and the Iraqi Elections

Diversity of Political Opinions

by John Heit

The Iraqi elections certainly were an historic event with (potentially) great consequences for the the Middle East. But right now, before all the seats of Parliament are officially tabulated, the strong showing of the Shi'ites is causing a bit of commotion; they're going to establish a theocracy and we'll have two Irans! There's a little more to it than that…

There are several things to remember when we talk about the possible outcomes of a Shi'ite dominated Iraqi government. What may be the most fundamental piece can be easy to overlook: the Shi'ites of Iraq are not a monolithic body. There are graduations along the political spectrum amongst the Shi'ite; Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is not the same as Muqtada al-Sadr. And consequently, not all the Shi'ite want an Islamic state--in fact, I think the opposite is true.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani has been a major force throughout the last year leading to the election. He is the most respected and influential Shi'ite cleric in Iraq. Sistani has said many times that he does not want a theocratic government in Iraq as in Iran. Sistani does want Islam recognized as the religion of most Iraqis and he does not think that any laws of the new Iraq should conflict with sharia (Islamic Law). But these two thoughts hardly make Sistani a cleric about which to be worried.

Sistani's voice is one of moderation. "He has not promoted an official role for Islamic clerics in Iraq's new government. Sistani supports an Islamic state that is compatible with elections, freedom of religion, and other civil liberties" (Pan Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani). Perhaps this is a good parallel to this idea for Westerners: the European Union (EU) work to write a new constitution. A rather heated debate ensued over whether, in the preamble, there should be an explicit recognition of Christianity as part of the European heritage. Analogously, Sistani wants the Iraqi constitution to recognize Islam as the faith of most Iraqis (a part of their heritage, you might say). Sistani is a smart man; he knows the temptation that may thwart Iraq if overt political power is given to clerics. The most influential Shi'ite doesn't want an Iranian style theocracy in Iraq. He wants a free and democratic Iraq controlled by Iraqis.

The Parties, Candidates & Preliminary Results

First of all, this election is really complicated. I make no claims to being an expert on this matter. For the best information, I suggest reading articles from the Council on Foreign Relations ( The Council on Foreign Relations is a very prestigious and respected think tank in Washington, D.C. that (surprise!) focuses on foreign affairs issues. With that disclaimer said, here's what I can gather…

The sheer number of parties and candidates in this election is enough to scare most people. There are 111 "political 'entities' --parties, individuals, or coalitions--running for the National Assembly" (Pan The January Elections by the Numbers). It gets better; there are 7,785 candidates running on the national ballot. Last November, I heard students complaining about trying to understand the positions of George W. Bush and John F. Kerry--imagine trying to figure this one out!

The United Iraqi Alliance (the coalition with the support of Grand Ayatollah Sistani) is clearly the top vote-getter with approximately 48% of the vote. Of the 275 seats in Parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance will probably get 140 seats. The Alliance dominated the polls from Baghdad through the southern provinces where the majority of the country's Shi'ite live. One surprise is that, despite 140 seats, the United Iraqi Alliance will have to join into a larger coalition with another party(ies) in order to have the two-thirds necessary to form a new government (Burns 2-3).

This is great news. Since the Shi'ite don't have enough seats to have complete control they will have to cooperate in order to form the new government. Speculation right now is that the Alliance may approach the Kurdistan Alliance (the real surprise from the elections with about 25% of the vote and probably as many as 75 seats) to form the government. The likely cooperation between these two groups is a good sign as many people expressed concern over the differing views of the three major different groups in Iraq: the Shi'ite in the south, the Kurds in the north, and the Sunni Arabs in the central part of the country (Burns 2-3).

While the Iraqi List (a list of largely secular candidates including Ayad Allaw, the interim prime minister) didn't do as well as most Americans hoped (about 14% and 40 seats in Parliament), there is more good news: only three seats are likely to go to the National Independent Leaders, the party implicitly loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shi'ite cleric who twice sparked violence against the U.S. (Burns 1).

How cooperative the Sunnis decide to be in this process will be of great importance. While many Sunnis boycotted the elections, it appears that they will end up accepting a role in shaping the new constitution. Or at least I really hope so.


Burns, John F., Glanz, James. "Iraqi Shiites Win, but Margin Is Less than Projection". New York Times. Available online February 14, 2005.

Pan, Esther. "Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani". Article by Staff Writer for the Council on Foreign Relations. Available online February 4, 2005.

Pan, Esther. "The January Elections by the Numbers". Article by Staff Writer for the Council on Foreign Relations. Available online February 4, 2005.


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

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