Restoring Iraqis’ trust

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Friday 8 Oct 2021

Iraqis will head to the polls on Sunday, 10 October, to take part in a high-stakes parliamentary election closely watched by Iraq’s neighbours and key world powers. More than anything else, the election promises to be a referendum on the Tishreen protest movement which shook the country in October, 2019. The protests revealed widespread frustration with the Iraqi political establishment, and a deep desire for change.  

Iraq is facing many challenges and threats ahead of those vital elections, topped with the old political parties’ monopoly on power, the uncontrolled spread of weaponry, and mistrust between voters and politicians.  However, there is hope that the vote might kickstart the process of restoring security and stability in Iraq.

The ruling elite that has been in control since the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 must break with the past, uniting around an agenda for change. This will not be possible, however, unless the regional and international backers of competing political forces also agree on the need to stop using Iraq as a battleground to settle their differences.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi deserves praise for keeping his promise to hold early elections, in response to the popular protests that rocked the country two years ago. While the 2018 parliamentary elections saw claims of widespread electoral fraud, the government of Al-Kadhimi and the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission promised to avoid the “mistakes” of past elections by adopting biometric voting cards, requesting international observation missions and deploying a sizable security force. The over 3200 candidates competing in elections were also given free access to the media, allowing them to explain their programmes. However, there were also charges of vote buying by some wealthy candidates offering various gifts.

And yet the more difficult task to face Al- Kadhimi or other winners will be to form a stable government in a short time. No single party is expected to gain more than 60 out of the 329 seats contested in the upcoming elections. This means that at least seven parties will need to come together to form a coalition government. Following elections in 2018, it took the ruling parties nearly five months to agree on a prime minister and a government.  After the protests in late 2019 resulted in the resignation of former premier Adel Abdel-Mahdi, Al-Kadhimi proved a successful choice, someone who understood Iraq’s complicated politics, having no historical enmities with the dominant political actors. He also enjoys international acceptance, and preempts the zero-sum game calculations that would result if one of the dominant, pro-Iran Shiite political parties won a large number of seats. Allowing Al-Kadhimi a second term as a compromise candidate will be a significant achievement for Iraq’s ruling elite.

If he manages to build a coalition of like-minded, cross ethnic-sectarian parties that embrace all Iraqi factions – Kurdish, Sunni and Shia – with a vision for reform, that will certainly bring about benefits. It will facilitate the election of a decisive premier willing to take on difficult issues like corruption, unemployment and improving living conditions, which are among the key demands of protesters taking to the streets since 2019.

On the regional and international levels, such a prime minister would face the difficult task of convincing both Iran and the United States to stop using Iraq as a front to settle their differences. The United States assassinated the key Iranian Revolutionary Army commander Qassem Suleimani, on Iraqi soil in 2019. Pro-Iranian militias responded by firing rockets on US forces based in northern Iraq. Perhaps if Washington and Tehran manage to revive the 2015 agreement aimed at controlling Iran’s nuclear programme that will help in bringing about stability and security in Iraq.

Though he has been in office for hardly a year, Al-Kadhimi also managed to restore Iraq’s ties with its key regional neighbours, including Saudi Arabia. He personally paid a visit to Riyadh, assuring the support of the powerful kingdom on both the political and economic fronts. He also took part in the formation of a trilateral alliance that included Egypt and Jordan in order to enssure economic cooperation and exchange. The repeated meetings between President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi and the Iraqi prime minister confirmed Egypt’s desire to back efforts to restore security and stability in Iraq.

Building strong ties with Sunni political parties and tribes will also be another challenge awaiting the upcoming Iraqi prime minister. Such an alliance is a must to enssure a successful confrontation with the Islamic State, or Daesh, a militia that continue to pose a major security threat to Iraq.  

The political process, led by the United States after its invasion of Iraq in 2003, has obviously failed to bring about tangible accomplishments and successes to Iraq. Such failure has weakened citizens’ confidence in the political process and increasingly prevented a strong turnout in recent rounds of elections. Al-Kadhimi’s toughest task is to regain their trust.

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

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