Surprising Improvement in Iraqi Mood Masks Dangerous Sectarian Tensions


By Margaret Havemann, John Moreira, and Brian Paler.

This article originally appeared in the Diplomatic Courier.

Although the daily news from Iraq often continues to be grim – including frequent suicide bombings and street attacks – a new poll carried out by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner on behalf of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) shows a surprising improvement in the national mood. NDI’s statement on the poll is here.

The poll shows a dramatic 10-point rise since last year in the share of Iraqis who see their country heading in the right direction – now up to 41 percent. Despite continuing problems of violence and political instability, the public’s more upbeat mood reflects improvement on issues that directly touch their lives: basic services such as electricity and water supply; education; cost of living; and job opportunities. These improvements are likely to pay dividends for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his coalition, State of Law, in the April 30 parliamentary elections. Votes are currently being counted.

At the same time, the country’s improved mood conceals deep and troubling divisions among its various sects. Sunni Muslims continue to feel disenfranchised due to a widespread sense that security, basic services, and economic conditions are getting worse for them. This is in significant contrast to their Shia Muslim counterparts.

Because Sunnis perceive their situation as worsening, they have developed a deep distrust toward Maliki, the central government, and Iraq’s democratic institutions. This distrust will likely reveal itself at the ballot box this week, since Sunnis are significantly less likely to vote than any of Iraq’s other religious sects. The dramatic gap in turnout between Sunnis and the other sects means that Sunnis are likely to be underrepresented in government, especially in more mixed provinces like Ninewa and Kirkuk.

Sunnis’ weak inclination to vote means that the elections’ winners may feel less political pressure to include Sunni-led parties in the next governing coalition. Equally worrisome, a significant number of Sunnis (34 percent) say they will not respect the outcome of the election if the party they vote for does not come to power. As a result, the outcome of the April 30 elections and the resulting government formation could exacerbate already dangerous sectarian tensions.

Common campaign practice in countries with deep sectarian divides like this is to openly play on those tensions to garner votes. The new poll suggests there is a less divisive and more productive course available to political parties in Iraq. In the poll, Iraqis say they are more likely to vote based on a candidate’s accomplishments or a party’s policies than on sect and ethnicity. Moreover, they are most likely to be won over by candidates who focus on concrete plans that can bring real and tangible benefits to average Iraqis. It remains to be seen whether major Iraqi leaders will move to that higher and more substantive ground.


Margaret Havemann and Brian Paler are pollsters and political consultants at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. John Moreira is president of JPM Strategic Solutions. Together, they have over 30 years of public opinion research experience. They have conducted research in Iraq for NDI since 2010.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research has been conducting public opinion research in Iraq on behalf of the National Democratic Institute since 2010.

Image credit to Wikimedia Commons.