Iraq’s Shia brace for election battle

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 4 Dec 2020

Facing crucial vote next year, Iraq’s Shia political groups are aggressively jockeying for power, targeting pro-reform protesters

Iraq’s Shia brace for election battle
Supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr clash with anti-government protesters in Nassiriya (photo: Reuters)

With elections in Iraq only months away, the country’s Shia political factions, which have been in control of the government for nearly 18 years, are making preparations for their campaigns, fuelling speculation that the voting will be hotly contested.

Incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who came to power in May after months of political turmoil, has called early general elections for 6 June 2021, roughly a year earlier than they would normally have been held.

Early elections was a key demand of protesters who took to the streets of the capital Baghdad and many southern cities in Iraq to express their anger at endemic corruption, high unemployment, dire public services and foreign interference.

Many Iraqis have hoped that the next elections would be a chance for change to their country’s dysfunctional sectarian quota system of government, which is seen as being behind its political deadlock.

But as Al-Kadhimi stumbles on in enforcing his reform programme amid the resistance of the Shia political class that dominates the country’s parliament, government, security forces and judiciary, Iraq seems to be losing its chance to break the paralysis that has characterised the status quo since the fall of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Given the uncertainty created by Al-Kadhimi’s inability to offer competent leadership, the ruling cliques have continued to expand their power and to eliminate those who could be potential challengers in the upcoming elections.

While the political limbo continues to put Iraq on edge, a simmering power struggle among the country’s oligarchs is expected to turn next year’s elections into another exercise of jockeying for power by religious, tribal and ethnic factions in the post-US invasion period.

Though the elections are still seven months away, the ruling Shia groups are already looking at polling day as a moment when they can show up at polling centres to cement their political parties and capture more positions of wealth and power.

On Friday, supporters of Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr hit the streets of Baghdad and other Shia-populated cities in Iraq to flex their muscles and test their rivals’ resolution in a bid to keep the powerful Shia cleric ahead in the race against his rivals for dominance.

In an address to his supporters, Al-Sadr called on them to participate in the elections en masse in order to achieve the undisputed majority that would allow his Sadrist Trend movement to form Iraq’s next government. He has vowed that the next Iraqi government will be “Sadrist.”

The Sadrist Trend, which leads the Sairoon Coalition, has 52 members in the sitting parliament, but according to its leaders it hopes to garner more than 100 seats in the next elections so that it can fill the post of prime minister with a loyalist.

 In parallel with Al-Sadr, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a loyal ally of Iran, seems also to be gearing up for the elections next year with an eye to leading an alliance of Shia groups close to Iran.

Al-Maliki, who served two terms in office from 2006 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2014, is a leader of the small Shia “State of Law” bloc that won 26 seats in the 2018 elections. He now hopes to lead a coalition with the Fatah Alliance, a political façade of the Iranian-backed militias that came second in the 2018 elections with 47 seats.

Al-Maliki has intensified his campaign after a short trip to Tehran in October apparently made to secure Iran’s support. In the shouting match of the campaigns, Al-Maliki has been rivaled only by the Iran-backed militias that routinely use anti-protester, anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric.

The third-largest Shia group in the current parliament, Al-Nasr, or the Victory Alliance, has said it will boycott the next elections if it finds that the balloting will not be fair and credible.

The group, led by former prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi, said that a “popular and political boycott will remain an option” if it finds any indication of possible fraud.

The Victory Alliance has 42 members in the current parliament, most of them joining the list in the belief that Al-Abadi would be the winning horse in the 2018 elections. Many of them have left the bloc since.

Al-Abadi’s failure to secure a second term in office and his resignation from the Daawa Islamic Party has weakened his political stature and undermined his bid for a comeback to power.

Another Shia political group, the National Wisdom Movement, which has 20 seats in the current parliament, is seeking to eschew traditional Shia alliances for closer relations with other communities.

Its leader, cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, has been advocating what he calls a “cross-communal coalition” that he hopes will bring together Shia, Kurdish and Sunni representatives on one ticket to fight the next elections.

It is doubtful that Al-Hakim, who is increasingly being deprived of power, will find common cause with the Kurds and Sunnis in joining forces in a new alliance that runs counter to the power-sharing political system that serves the communal leaders’ interests, however.

Sunni and Kurdish parties are divided and they are relentlessly focusing on the identity of their base and are looking to the next elections to reassert their power within their own communities more than to align themselves with Shia groups with whom they share little trust.  

Although it would be premature to say that the early jockeying for power marks a collapse of the traditional coalitions among the Iraqi Shia political groups, the rivalries spell another failure in the community’s leadership in steering the country away from the brink.

There are obvious dangers in the unravelling of the power struggle, since it could plunge a country already hobbled by financial fragility, political chaos, sectarian divides and terrorism threats into a renewed period of crisis and uncertainty.

One main reason behind the escalating power struggle among the Shia political groups is the wave of protests that has rocked Iraq since October 2019, triggering a popular movement calling for an overhaul of the sect-based political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.

The Shia ruling groups tried to crack down on the protesters, but when they failed to quell the uprising they resorted to political tricks to outmanoeuvre them first by sugar-coated reform promises and then by containment.

What is at stake for the Shia oligarchs is a change of the dynamics of power in the political system, influenced by the protests. This could encourage new voices among the Iraqi Shia to build social and political bases and to compete in the next elections.

Fearful that the anti-establishment protests will grow into a political force threatening their rule, the entrenched Shia ruling groups have ganged up to crack down fiercely on the peaceful demonstrators.

Supporters of Al-Sadr this week brutally attacked protesters still holding protest camps in several cities in southern Iraq. Several protesters were killed, dozens were wounded and the camps were set on fire in the ensuing clashes.

Iraq’s cities have been witnessing a wave of attacks on activists who support the protesters by unidentified gunmen who have ambushed dozens mostly by using silenced firearms.

Both the assaults on the protesters and the assassinations seem to have been orchestrated to scare pro-reform activists away from taking part in the next elections.

By any account, Iraq’s elections in 2021 are likely to be the most important in the recent history of the country. What is at stake, however, may generate more animosity and gridlock.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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