08.10.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iraq: What Will the Elections Show

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The upcoming October 10 parliamentary elections in Iraq can lead to real changes in the country only if there is a high voter turnout, especially among young people. This opinion is expressed by many international analysts and political scientists. If the apathy observed in society and calls for a boycott of the electoral process persist, the chances of reform remain slim, and progressive parties will be forced to fight for a small number of seats in the National Assembly of Iraq.

The early parliamentary elections are an “achievement” of the large-scale protests that broke out in Iraq in 2019-2020 amidst the nationwide economic crisis caused by the actions of a corrupt and ineffective government. As a result, several young political parties aimed at coming to power after the October 10 elections organized and emerged from the protest movement. “If the independents stuck together, they could make a new bloc, but they would have to quickly agree on a leader and be disciplined, which seems unlikely today. But it might be possible in 2025 Iraqi national elections. Unfortunately, the protestors are instead talking about boycotting as they missed their window to organize their efforts,” Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, expressed his opinion.

The voter lists include 25 million Iraqis who must choose 329 MPs. However, for the most part, the public is inclined to boycott, since the upcoming campaign is perceived by the population as biased with a predetermined outcome. The “old” parties currently sharing power are accused of voter fraud and nepotism. “I don’t think the upcoming elections will cause much change in parliament, there might be slight rearrangements in terms of the balance of established parties with a few independent candidates making it into parliament. Beyond that, we won’t see much significant shifts or changing power balances,” Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, said At the same time, an unexplored issue is the connection of the “new faces” with the parties entrenched in parliament. All this together has caused the disappointment of the people of Iraq in the current political system and in the way in which the country is moving. In this regard, according to Higel, the turnout in the upcoming elections will be only about 30%. “Voting in the elections won’t produce a change and, as a result, some of the parties that were established have announced their boycotting of the elections,” she added.

Apparently, in the upcoming elections in the Shiite areas of Iraq, the majority of votes will be divided by three forces. The first of them is the coalition of Muqtada al-Sadr, who previously joined the boycott, but then abandoned it. The influential Shiite advocates the normalization of relations with other Arab countries, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq and the suppression of attempts by other countries to interfere in the internal affairs of the republic. There are points of contact between him and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as well as with certain Sunni parties.

The second major Shiite force is the pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance. In recent years, this coalition has significantly lost popularity. These groups uncontrolled by Baghdad are an irritating factor for Iraqi society.

The Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq party led by Amar al-Hakim and Haider Abadi is even less popular than Fatah. It stands for independence from the will and instructions of Iran and has good relations with Sadrists and Kurds, which creates a potential opportunity for it to unite with them in one bloc. If this happens, this bloc has every opportunity after the elections to occupy a dominant position in the National Assembly.

It is also worth mentioning the unpopular radical Shiite and Iran-oriented DAWA party and its leader Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister of Iraq. In August, news broke that al-Maliki intends to take up a leadership post in the future government again. However, such a development of events seems conditionally possible only if Al-Sadr is committed to boycotting the elections and dividing the votes of his supporters among other Shiite parties. At the moment, this is almost impossible even if DAWA falls into the Shiite coalition.

The Sunni “camp” also has three of the most promising political movements. Billionaire Khamis al-Khanjar’s Al-Azm party focuses on Qatar and advocates friendly relations with Iran. But its leader is under US sanctions on corruption charges.  The Takaddum Alliance formed by the current Speaker of the Parliament, Muhammed al-Halbousi, stands for close ties with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the third force, the “National Salvation Project” of Osama al-Nujaifi, focuses on Turkey.  In general, there is considerable criticism of Sunni political parties and their elites from Iraqi Sunni voters. Voters accuse these parties of caring only for their own interests and of lacking any collective policy between them to protect the Sunnis. Each of these parties focuses on regional states or their groups fighting for power in Iraq.

The Kurds, in turn, have two major political forces, that is, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The first of them occupies a dominant position in the regions with a Kurdish majority, in connection with which the PUK enters into an alliance with smaller local parties in order to undermine the positions of the KDP. In practice, this is expressed in agreements between them on mutual support of each other’s candidates. But, even though the Kurdish population will vote for their parties, it is unlikely that they will occupy any solid position in the Iraqi parliament.

Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric has called on Iraqis to vote to “bring about real change” in parliamentary elections.  The statement by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s office came amid a potentially high abstention rate in the October 10 elections that followed the popular uprising.  The originally expected vote was put forward as a rare official concession to the protests in the fall of 2019, when tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest against crumbling public services and a government they denounced as corrupt and inept. Hundreds of people have died in months of protest-related violence.  But the elections did not generate much enthusiasm among Iraq’s 25 million voters, while activists and parties behind the uprising mostly decided to boycott them. “The Supreme Religious Leader calls on everyone to participate consciously and responsibly in the next elections,” Ali Sistani’s office said in a statement.  Even if there are flaws in this process, “this is the best way to move the country towards a future that we hope will be better.”

Members of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary organization integrated into the regular Iraqi security forces are very concerned about the official decision prohibiting them from voting in the same way as other members of the Security Forces. The fact is that members of the Security Forces vote in the parliamentary elections in the country on October 8 in the places where they are stationed, two days before the main poll, during which citizens will vote in their home districts. However, the members of the paramilitary organization were included in the general lists and will vote on October 10 in their home regions, and not in their deployment areas, which may be difficult for them.

Faced with uncertainty at the polling stations, Iraq has invited foreign observers to monitor the upcoming elections, but many doubt that they are qualified to assess whether the vote will be free and fair. The parliamentary elections are likely to be the most dramatic in the recent history of Iraq. Given the extremely biased atmosphere during the “conflict fatigue,” meaningful and effective elections, if Iraqis actively vote in them, will be crucial for the stability of the country and the future of the Iraqi people.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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