An extensive new poll on public opinion in Iraq shows growing concern in the country about economic conditions. Confidence in government nonetheless remains relatively high, even after months of political wrangling.
A new poll of Iraqi public opinion released by the International Republican Institute (IRI) yields three significant findings: a majority of Iraqis are now pessimistic about their country’s future, the provision of basic services is a bigger challenge than security, and Ayad Allawi must be part of a new government.
These are just a few conclusions that can be drawn from the extensive data in the poll. The survey, IRI’s eighth in Iraq since 2003, covers the opinions of nearly 3,000 Iraqis from all over the country and offers many clues for observers attempting to discern the future trajectory of the country as US forces end their combat mission in the country and gradually draw down.
When taken together, several themes emerge. One source of optimism is that despite the political stalemate, Iraqis have not yet soured on their new government. Voters appeared to select candidates in this year’s parliamentary elections based on performance and political factors, rather than a shared religious or ethnic identity, signaling that a fledgling democratic tradition may replace the bitter sectarian future in Iraq that many observers fear.
The poll also indicates that security nationwide has improved to the point that far more Iraqis are now concerned about the government providing basic services like electricity and water than are worried about being killed. Most Iraqis report that their financial situation has improved -- and believe that this positive trend will continue.
However, other results give significant cause for alarm: the worsening unemployment situation in key areas of Iraq could provide the fuel for a renewed insurgency; the national government’s continued inability to provide basic services for its citizens has the potential to erode both Iraqis’ faith in their new government and the security gains made over the past two years; and at this critical juncture, a majority of the Iraqi public now believes that the country is moving in the “wrong direction”, a disturbing reversal from previous polling results.
Patience ... For Now
Despite the concern heard frequently in the Western press over the political wrangling and lack of a proper government in the aftermath of Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary elections, support for Iraq’s national government remains remarkably stable. Over 60% of Iraqis say they still approve of the national government, and positive opinions of the government outweigh negative opinions in every region -- virtually unchanged from IRI’s December 2009 poll.
Notably, Iraqis’ attitudes towards their parliament also remain positive, with 57% of Iraqis confident the new parliament “will work well for the benefit of all Iraqi people”. Overall, parliament’s approval rating is divided nearly evenly, with 38% approving and 37% disapproving. While this is not a ringing endorsement -- Iraqis are frustrated with the government’s failure thus far to deliver on many of its myriad promises to improve their lives – neither is it an outright rejection. Iraqis have mixed feelings about their parliament at the moment, but their answers indicate that most are confident its performance will improve once a government is formed.
While not exactly stratospheric, it is worth noting that those numbers are far better than approval of the US Congress during the same period (20% approval, 74% disapproval). Oddly, they are also better than the favourable/unfavourable ratings Iraqis gave to their parliament in IRI’s previous survey in December 2009 (29% favourable, 49% unfavourable). However, most Iraqis across all regions also said that government corruption has gotten worse during the past year.
While views on the government were mixed, a wide majority of Iraqis did agree on one political question: Ayad Allawi’s political future. Seventy-four percent of Iraqis said that it was “important” for Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiyya bloc won the most parliamentary seats in the March 7 elections, to have a role in the new government: This opinion was surprisingly consistent across all regions – even in the predominantly Shia areas in the south where Iraqiyya did not enjoy as much electoral support.
Allawi's support was particularly strong in the Sunni-dominated provinces of the “Northern Triangle” (Anbar, Salahuddin, and Diyala), where 80% said they would consider any government without Allawi illegitimate. Security analysts and political leaders fearing a renewed insurgency among disaffected Iraqi Sunnis would do well to take note.
Inexplicably, IRI’s poll did not ask respondents a single question about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, nor that of any other prominent Iraqi political leaders, neglecting an important metric of comparison that could have provided valuable context for Iraqis’ views about the importance of Allawi’s role.
Iraq Is Not Lebanon – At Least Not Yet
Asked what factor had the “greatest influence on their vote” in the March 7 elections, the poll found that a slight majority of Iraqis (51%) said they based their decision on political or performance-related factors like “quality of individual candidates”, “performance of incumbent,” or “party platform” as opposed to identity-based factors like “ethnicity” or “religion” (41%). Encouragingly, only a quarter of Iraqi Shi’a and just 7% of Sunnis said they voted based mainly on religion.
The overwhelming Kurdish preference for ethnic Kurdish candidates (57%) was far higher. Iraqi Kurds’ long-suffering minority status and traditional suspicion of the central government in Baghdad shines through in this poll. That community’s primary concern remains the protection of Kurdish interests by their representatives in Baghdad -- especially as the central government and the Kurdish regional government continue to clash over the control of disputed cities and oil revenues. The poll clearly shows the desire of the Kurds to retain their autonomy -- the regional government boasted an 83% approval rating in Kurdistan – and Kurds made their steadfast federalist position known by overwhelmingly disagreeing with the idea of sending more oil revenue to Baghdad (62%) and wishing to empower provincial governments over the central government (80%).
Observers should take heart that Iraq’s Sunnis, despite feeling marginalised after boycotting the 2005 elections, and collectively blamed by many Kurds and Shi’a for the repression and brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime, have not fallen back on crude identity politics in an attempt to protect their interests. The limited importance of religious identity in the election suggests voters have been able to move beyond recent tensions and resentments. The success of Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiyya block, combined with the electoral collapse of the more traditional “Sunni” Tawafuq Accord party (which dropped from 44 seats in the previous parliament to just six), shows that an increasing number of Iraqis prefer cross-sectarian leaders to those defined by narrow parochial interests.
While no doubt casting their votes with the belief that Iraqiyya would keep Shi’a blocs like State of Law and Iraqi National Alliance in check, the fact that few Iraqi Sunnis felt intimidated enough to vote based on purely religious lines leaves open the possibility that Iraq will avoid the fate of Lebanon, where sectarian-based politics have become an institutionalised feature of politics under the “National Pact”, the unwritten rule that distributes the top Lebanese government positions along sectarian lines.
Frustration With Lack of Progress Growing
Despite many relatively encouraging signs, the picture of Iraq painted by IRI’s poll is by no means a rosy one.
Patience with the agonised progress towards the formation of a new government is running low, and it is hard to tell how much longer this degree of equanimity will last. One quarter of Iraqis “don’t know” how they feel about the new parliament. This unusually high number is likely due to a large number of fence-sitters who are waiting to see how the political drama plays out. Many of them could sour on the government if the situation remains unstable and services do not begin to improve.
In spite of the sustained support for the national government, the poll found that most Iraqis (59%) believe their country is moving in the wrong direction, an opinion consistent among all three of Iraq’s major sectarian groups. This is a very significant increase in pessimism since the December 2009 poll, when the figure was just 43%.
Basra was the most pessimistic of any region surveyed with the highest percentage believing that the country was moving in the wrong direction (71%), the lowest positive rating of the new Iraqi parliament (26% approval), and the most negative opinion of their own provincial council (65% disapproval).
Despite relative gains in security in Basra since 2007, the southernmost province of Iraq has failed to translate its vast oil wealth into improved services and development. Sanitation, sewage, and electricity services in Basra remain incredibly poor, and Iraqis in Basra feel that the government in Baghdad has neglected them. Zaid Al-Ali, a former UN legal advisor in Iraq, noted in a recent interview that he often hears that Iraq's ruling elite is sectarian in the way they provide services (e.g. the Shia-led government in Baghdad only provides services to Shia areas). “Well, it turns out that that's not even true,” retorted Al-Ali. “If that were true, then there would be improvement on the current situation because in fact they don't render any services to anyone.”
Protests over electricity shortages occurred in numerous Iraqi cities this summer, but in Basra they turned violent. Police opened fire on demonstrators, causing at least one death and forcing the Iraqi electricity minister to resign.
Basra was also the only region surveyed where a majority of respondents (52%) were not confident that the new Iraqi parliament “will work well for the benefit of all Iraqi people.” Add to this mix the recent reports that Shi’ite gangs in Basra are joining Al Qaeda (despite their theological differences) and that Al Qaeda has been stepping up attacks in the province of late, and there is considerable reason to worry about Basra’s future.
“Basic Services” Over Security
The poll found that a large majority of Iraqis (73%) believe that the security situation in the country in general has improved since last summer. Consistent with previous polls, approval of the Iraqi National Army and Iraqi National Police remained high among all Iraqis, and across all regions.
As the security situation has continued to improve, a sizeable majority of the population (66%) now say that they view “basic services” as the biggest challenge facing their country. Security was rated as the top problem by just 24% of respondents. This is a dramatic shift from December 2009, when just 23% of Iraqis listed basic services as their top concern, and far more (43%) were worried about security.
A major part of the explanation for this shift lies in the fact that 59% of Iraqis believe the electricity situation has worsened in the past year -- and nearly half said that it was “much worse.” The crippling electricity shortages that plagued Iraq this summer have undoubtedly contributed to Iraqis’ pessimistic outlook, as the Iraqi government has failed to increase production enough to meet the skyrocketing demand. In addition, the improving security situation means that fewer Iraqis are worried about terrorist and insurgent attacks – the biggest disruption in their daily lives has now become the lack of reliable access to basic services.
Most distressing were a pair of responses from Iraq’s “Disputed Territories” – the provinces of Ninewah and Tamim, home to the ethnically mixed cities of Mosul and Kirkuk – where residents reported a decline in both security and services. The Disputed Territories was the only region in Iraq in which more citizens told pollsters that their security situation had worsened than thought it had improved. Even worse, an overwhelming majority (80%) of residents in Ninewah and Tamim said that their electricity, water, and sewage services had gotten worse in the past year -- the highest perceived decline of any region. The cause of these failures can be attributed to the continuing political stalemate over control of the disputed cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which have resulted in a degradation of the services in those provinces, as the political and administrative battle between the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad continues to rage.
A Mixed Economic Picture
On the one hand, Iraqis rate their country’s overall economic situation rather negatively (56% describe it as “bad”). On the other, they are much more positive about their own personal financial situation, with 55% saying their household’s finances have improved over the past year, and only 37% saying they have gotten worse. Similarly, Iraqis across the country were optimistic about their personal financial future, with 63% saying they expect their financial situation to improve over the next year (just 13% said they expected it to get worse).
Yet, in regions where economic development is arguably most important in ensuring that all Iraqis have a stake in the success of the new Iraq, the economic outlook is darker.
The Sunni-dominated “Northern Triangle” was the only region of Iraq where a majority of residents said their household finances have gotten worse during the past year – the only exception to this indicator’s otherwise positive trend elsewhere in the country. This region also had the worst opinion of Iraq’s overall economy: nearly 70% rated their country’s economic situation as “bad”, and 71% believed unemployment has gotten worse over the past year.
At the national level, unemployment is another key concern, with 63% saying it had worsened since 2009. Respondents in the “Disputed Territories” recorded the biggest increase in unemployment over the past year (73% said it had gotten worse). Combined with this region's deteriorating security situation and access to basic services over the past year, rising unemployment in Ninewah and Tamim could provide the fuel for a sudden outbreak of violence.
What Lies Ahead
Whatever the final political configuration of Iraq’s next government, the future of Iraq will largely hinge on the government’s ability to internalise and start addressing the fundamental concerns of its citizens. The IRI poll reflects the severe challenges facing the country. Problems like unemployment, terrorism, and sectarianism will not be solved overnight, nor during the next government’s term. In volatile, post-conflict environments such as Iraq, progress is invariably slow, frequently stalls, and is always reversible.
The country has faced numerous so-called “moments of truth” over the past few years, but with significant changes in the US military commitment, and the growing pains of a pluralistic democracy becoming all the more evident, an autonomous Iraq now faces its first true test of the post-US era.
Alexander Mayer is an independent analyst who specializes in Middle East regional security issues. He has previously written about Iraq for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and RealClearWorld. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in Security Policy Studies at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.