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The banality of Iraq’s elections

As the crisis over the country’s election results persists, Iraqis are preparing for protracted turmoil and probably violence

Salah Nasrawi , Sunday 1 Jul 2018
Haider al-Abadi, Moqtada al-Sadr
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (L), who's political bloc came third in a May parliamentary election, meets with cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who's bloc came first, in Najaf, Iraq June 23, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)
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Iraqis have been depressingly familiar with occasional standoffs over elections since their first “free” polls following the ouster of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein by the invading US army in 2003.

Since then every national election has been marred by serious allegations of widespread fraud, rendering what was hoped to be a democracy that would end more than four decades of dictatorship a legally dubious system of oligarchy.

Iraq remained an island of instability, lurching from one political crisis to the next. The voting for a constituent assembly entrenched a greedy political power elite leading successive dysfunctional governments.

Last month, Iraq had another set of elections that many Iraqis had hoped would initiate drastic changes following the victory over the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

Yet, the May vote, boycotted by some 56 per cent of eligible voters, has turned into another futile exercise and dealt a deadly blow to democracy.

Even worse, it has plunged the beleaguered nation into a new round of political uncertainty, with bleak projections as a legal standoff emerges and threatens to delegitimise the governing system.

The crisis began almost as soon as voting ended in the 12 May elections with charges of electoral fraud after electronic voting machines, used for the first time in Iraq, had produced inconsistent results and fuelled claims of tampering and other malpractices.

The crisis escalated after the outgoing parliament had voted for a manual recount of the votes in the country’s national elections and to suspend the Independent Higher Elections Commission (IHEC) charged with overseeing the elections.

On 21 June, Iraq’s highest court upheld the law mandating a nationwide manual recount of the votes after a number of political parties had alleged widespread fraud.

Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court ruled that parliament was within its mandate in passing an amendment authorising a recount of all the nearly 10 million votes cast in the elections that had resulted in no winner of a clear majority.

The court ruling was met by varying reactions from Iraq’s political factions. The losers, frustrated by their failure to receive enough votes, welcomed the verdict, while the winners expressed caution that a recount could alter the results.

Powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr whose Saaroon Alliance won the most seats in the vote warned of “dire consequences” of the court ruling. He called on Iraqis “to show self-restraint” even if they were unconvinced by the court’s decision.

Senior officials in his bloc also described the ruling as “unconvincing” and warned it could create a “political and constitutional void” in the country.

Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the Fatah List, a political umbrella for Shia paramilitary groups which came second in the elections, also accused the government and the Electoral Commission of “mismanaging the poll.”

More broadly, the court ruling was seen by commentators as politicised, probably reflecting the judges’ consideration of the volatility of the Iraqi situation and the need for a judicial balance in order to make room for a political compromise.

In 2010, the court ruled that the “largest bloc” in the parliament required by the constitution to form a government was that which could be formed before the first session of a new parliament and not that which had won the largest number of seats.

The historic decision, which deprived the mostly Sunni bloc that won most of the seats of forming a government, set a precedent that allowed Shia political groups to form a majority coalition and a cabinet.

Iraq’s “democracy,” however, has always been seen as being fake and producing a ruling elite through electoral fraud and political manipulation that have been at the very centre of governing strategies.

The roots of this disastrous monopoly system lie in the political structure imposed by the US Bush administration on Iraq in collaboration with the Iraqi political elite it brought to power after Saddam’s fall.

Iraq’s government is based on a quota system that in theory distributes power and wealth among the country’s ethnic and religious communities. It was created by US occupation planners to sustain a political consensus that would bring the country’s communities into a national structure after the 2003 invasion.

In practice, however, the sharing system has been so flawed by malpractice and dysfunction that it has triggered an endless spiral of sectarian discontent and violence that has torn Iraq’s social fabric.

In addition, the system has been behind the endemic corruption that has acted as the bedrock of Iraq’s failed state and has lain at the root of its political, security, economic and social problems.

At the heart of Iraq’s 15-year political impasse is what actually happens during the country’s parliamentary elections, these proving time and again that they are only a smokescreen for sectarian policies on the part of the country’s political elites representing various ethnicities and religious sects.

However, the current standoff has also demonstrated that Iraq’s post-Saddam political system would be more accurately described as a “managed democracy,” or an example of governance that hides a kind of reinvented authoritarianism combined with kleptocracy.

For the roughly 45 per cent of the Iraqi electorate that hoped that the 2018 elections would bring change, the stakes could not be higher: the elections may have been the last chance to get rid of the country’s entrenched political class and make changes in the dysfunctional political system.

Instead, as was the case in the three rounds before them these elections will re-establish the power of the same ruling class that has been in power for the past 15 years and help it set its own rules for the next four years.

A single vote does not really count. Debating whether the parliament’s amendment of the electoral law was constitutional or not and if the court’s ruling was politically motivated or not will not make any difference to the outcome of the elections.

The country’s large Shia political factions have begun teaming up to form the largest bloc in parliament and the one asked to nominate a prime minister.

There are fears of a political stalemate worse than those after previous elections or possibly further divisions within the Shia camp.

Once the Shia factions have teamed up, they will likely turn to the Sunni and Kurdish blocs, offering them a slice of the cake in a new “national coalition” government and a free hand in the larger cake of graft.

This may solve the current standoff, but it certainly will not help solve the larger bitter national deadlock that has been hanging over the country since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Iraq will remain over the next four years in the torpid stagnation into which it fell in 2003, due largely to the domination of the sectarian parties over the affairs of state and society.

No rosy picture can be painted of the Arab world’s third most highly populated country. Any breakthrough to form a new government will remain threatened by the continuation of internal conflicts, foreign meddling, rampant corruption and government dysfunction.

Iraqis are realising that they have been sold a false prospectus, and they know that escaping the current quagmire will be hard without efficient, trustworthy and strong political leadership.

However, Iraq is in a mess, and its ethnicities and religious communities are sharply divided. The loyalty of its nearly one-million-strong security forces to the fractured national government is in doubt.

There are hundreds of thousands of paramilitary forces belonging to non-state and community-based actors in the country, including the Kurdish Peshmergas, Shia militias and armed tribesmen.

With some 7,000 US troops still in the country, a huge Turkish military presence, and growing Iranian political, military and security influence, Iraq is also under pressure from key competing foreign players who have already showed their interest in the country’s domestic politics.

If Iraq’s political elites continue in their deadly game of controlling the country’s enormous wealth and means of patronage to the rentier state while keeping the conflicts going, the result will not be pretty and will take the form of renewed instability and violence.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The banality of Iraq’s elections

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