Analysis: Iraq’s existential vote

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 8 Oct 2021

Next week’s parliamentary poll in Iraq will determine not only the government of the country, but whether Iraq has a viable future as a state.

Iraq

After months of preparations, Iraqis go to polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament which will then choose the prime minister, president, and government. 

Voters will elect 329 members of the Council of Deputies in polls that were originally scheduled for next year but then brought forward after demonstrators took to the streets in 2019 to protest against rampant corruption, poor services, and a political class perceived to be interested only in enriching itself.

The key question now is whether the vote will bring about a drastic change in Iraq’s politics and sound the death knell of the forces entrenched in government and which have overseen the massive spread of corruption and mismanagement. 

There is a great deal at stake. For Iraq to escape its current political quagmire the entire political system needs to be rebuilt, democracy strengthened, the economy revived and the existing kleptocracy eliminated.

Protecting Iraq’s sovereignty and curtailing foreign interference in the face of rising Iranian influence and Turkish military incursions, will also weigh heavily on voters’ minds.  

Iraq’s Shia political factions, which following Saddam Hussein’s fall maintained a more or less united front and succeeded in dominating the government, are hoping Iraq’s majority Shia population will secure their political power. Yet deep differences between the various Shia groups mean they will be running separately in the election, opening the polls up to fierce competition.    

The Sadrist Movement, named after its leader, cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, is hoping to emerge as the largest faction in parliament and have a decisive say in the formation of the government. The Sadr-led Saeroon alliance won 54 seats in the 2018 election, making it the largest parliamentary grouping, and used its parliamentary sway to expand its control over vast swathes of the state.

Al-Fatah Alliance, a grouping of the political wings of pro-Iranian Shia militias, came second in 2018 with 48 seats. It is headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organisation, and includes Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Katab Hizbullah , both groups with strong ties to Tehran. 

Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi, and the Hikma Movement of Shia cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, have joined forces to create the National State Forces Alliance. A bloc led by Al-Abadi came third in 2018, winning 42 seats, a performance he hopes the new alliance can surpass.

Nouri Al-Maliki, leader of the Islamic Dawa Party and prime minister between 2006 and 2014, heads the State of Law Coalition which won 25 seats in 2018. The fact that Al-Maliki is widely blamed for fuelling corruption and failing to confront the Islamic State could impact on the coalition’s chances at the polls.

Sunni Arabs are fielding candidates in three main groups along with dozens of independent candidates. Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi leads the Taqaddum, while Khamis Al-Khanjar, a business tycoon, and former speaker Osama Al-Najafi, each lead a rival group. Widely seen as divided and weak — the Sunni parties tend to appeal to tribal and clan loyalties — they are unlikely to succeed in rivalling Shia power.

Iraq’s northern Kurds, who under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution form an autonomous region, care more about consolidating their position, and the mechanics of power and wealth sharing in the autonomous region, than who controls parliament or central government. 

The two main Kurdish parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the Kurdish government in the capital Erbil, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls areas along the Iranian border, are fielding candidates in the national election in hope of advancing their agendas. The KDP won 25 seats in 2018, the PUK 18, followed by a number of smaller parties. They will again retain the lion’s share of Kurdish votes, but under the new electoral law the Kurds may lose some of the 58 seats which they won in 2018. 

While much attention has been focused on younger voters, particularly those who took part in the 2019 anti-establishment protests, the consensus is that it is a demographic beset by apathy, and which has little hope the polls will result in changes in the way Iraq is governed. A number of protest leaders who wanted to stand in the election have been kidnapped or assassinated, forcing others to abandon the race and call for a boycott. 

Fears are now growing that the turnout will be low. In the face of a devastated economy, subdued campaigning by the same old faces, and a surge in coronavirus cases, voter apathy is running deep among the country’s 25 million eligible voters. 

As the deadline for receiving ballot cards ended this week, the High Election Commission reported that only 17 million biometric voting cards had been delivered, feeding concerns that a low voter turnout could trigger a crisis of legitimacy. 

Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, has called for wide participation in the elections, saying that despite “shortcomings” voting remains the best way for Iraqis to take part in shaping their country’s future. He also urged voters to “make a good choice” in selecting candidates. 

Low turnout is one problem. Another will be ensuring the credibility of the results. The government has called for the UN and the European Union to play a role in monitoring the polls, and invited foreign embassies in Baghdad to observe the vote and certify the election is fair and free. But while the government thinks foreign observers can give the poll legal cover, large swathes of the public are sceptical about whether international observers have any objective way of validating the vote. 

The UN mission, in any case, provides technical electoral assistance, making it impossible for it to assume an observer role, while the EU’s team has remained non-committal over whether its final report on the election process will be made public.

As Shia rivals make claims and counterclaims over their shares of voter support there are mounting fears that the vote will be followed by accusations of irregularities and manipulation which could spill over into violence, and even lead to the collapse of the political system. 

The upcoming election clearly represents a turning point for Iraq’s increasingly fragmented politics. Whatever the outcome, the election will bring extraordinary challenges that test the Iraqi state and society at a time when it is facing multiple political, social, and security problems and a raging pandemic. 

While the chances are that Iraq’s political class will be able to overcome their bickering to form a new government, following the usual long drawn-out process, tensions between the entrenched elite and the pressing need for change triggered by the protest movement could easily be exacerbated.

What does seem clear is that Iraq’s political system is nearing the end of its course and needs a radical reinvention. If the election fails to hasten this process the political system will not be the only casualty. Ongoing conflicts, and the challenges of reconstruction and reintegration, will serve only to exacerbate sectarian tensions, and in a way that could herald the break-up of Iraq. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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