There is a consensus among pundits, experts, and diplomats that the stakes of the Iraqi parliamentary elections this October are a major test of Iraq’s ability to conduct a free-and-fair vote.
Indeed, the stakes may go well beyond these crucial elections if there is to be any hope of restoring the Iraqis’ confidence in their state after so much damage over nearly two decades.
Yet, while the contest remains consequential, many Iraqis do not see voting as a way to bring about the drastic changes their beleaguered nation needs, and many have even called for a boycott of the elections.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has called for parliamentary elections to take place on 10 October in response to demands by pro-reform activists who led large-scale protests in 2019 and forced then prime minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi to quit.
The parliamentary vote is set to be held under a new electoral law that reduces Iraq’s governorates-based system to 83 electoral districts and eliminates list-based voting in favour of votes for individual candidates.
The autumn balloting is Iraq’s sixth since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein. The elections were meant to make Iraq a trailblazer for democracy and pluralism in the largely autocratic Middle East.
Instead, the oligarchs who took power have held periodic elections to enhance their legitimacy and have monopolised the country’s resources, controlled the public sphere, and manipulated state institutions to ensure that they remain in power.
In each of these elections since the first post-Saddam elections in 2005, voting has been rigged and irregularities have been widespread, and they have produced parliaments paralysed by divisions and dysfunctional governments.
All these successive governments have failed the Iraqi people, and this oil-rich country has been marred by corruption, inefficiency, a lack of basic public services, human-rights abuses, and poverty.
Now, an already battered nation is being asked to make its choice of a new parliament among the same ruling cliques, with fraught political stagnation exacerbated by the worst public-health crisis in living memory and an economic slump that has cost millions of Iraqis a decent standard of living forming the background.
Al-Kadhimi has repeatedly promised that the poll will be “free and fair”. He has also urged pro-reform activists to organise themselves politically and to participate in the upcoming elections.
But the biggest and most pernicious whoppers doing the rounds today have come from UN officials and western diplomats in Baghdad, who have been trumpeting the vote as the advent of a new and more democratic future for Iraq.
UN Special Representative for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert has pledged that the world organisation will assist the Iraqi authorities in making the upcoming elections “transparent and credible”.
Western envoys in Baghdad are publicly underlining their governments’ commitment to supporting the “aspirations expressed by Iraqi citizens for the rule of law and reforms through free, fair, and credible elections” in Iraq.
The UN mission in Iraq has been promised millions of dollars in contributions by the United States, the European Union, and Japan to support the UN-led project to monitor Iraq’s upcoming elections.
Why the UN, the US, and western governments continue to provide sustenance to the power-greedy Iraqi leadership that has turned democracy into a farce remains a mystery.
As Iraqis know to their cost, elections often do not function smoothly even with all the enthusiasm and opportunities given by the world to establish civil governance and democracy.
Elections in their present form appear to be a fading shadow of democracy that does not only undermine the political system, but also endangers the fragile Iraqi state itself.
The reason why this contest is more consequential than the critical elections held in Iraq in 2005, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 is that the country is currently in a shaky state, and these elections could be a tipping point for its future.
Key among the expectations is that the next elections will constitute an opportunity to reverse the stagnant political order in Iraq and be an instrument of political reform and legitimation.
But the malign forces the ruling oligarchs in Iraq have summoned up over nearly two decades have already done so much damage to the institutions of the country’s nascent democracy that their re-election could damage forever the prospect of establishing a functioning state.
This setup has cast doubts on whether Iraq’s 2021 elections will indeed be free and fair and whether they will open up politics to wider participation, which is why many Iraqis have stopped taking the poll seriously.
According to Iraq’s Independent High Elections Commission (IHEC), as of 7 July there were 25,182,594 registered voters in Iraq, being people who have entered their names and other personal data into the system through a biometric registration form.
Basic statistics on Iraq’s population and eligible voters have been lacking as successive governments have postponed a national census, arguing that after years of wars and changes in demographic distribution any survey would be likely further to deepen ethnic divisions.
With fewer than two months to go before the elections, it is not clear how many biometric voter cards have been issued by the IHEC to eligible voters, as required by law, and how many have been received.
Independent NGOs, however, have reported that only 17 million eligible voters have updated their biometric registration cards, and only 13 million have received their cards.
The IHEC has added further confusion to the process by announcing that it is issuing temporary voter cards to those who missed the deadlines, a measure many believe could jeopardise the ballot’s legitimacy.
A final list of candidates published by the IHEC shows that some 3,249 candidates and 21 coalitions have been approved to run in the elections. Most of the candidates do not enjoy the influence that the well-established groups have, making it harder for independent newcomers to gain a platform and make political claims on the state.
The holding of early elections was a key demand of the nationwide anti-corruption protest movement that has railed against Iraq’s inefficient ruling oligarchs and the rising Iranian influence in Iraq.
Many leaders of the youth movement who were aspiring to participate in the early elections have been threatened, intimidated, or kidnapped. Some have even been hunted down, leaving a chilling effect on the elections campaign.
Significantly, an announcement by the populist Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr that his mass Sadrist Movement that leads the largest political bloc in parliament will boycott the elections has thrown the entire electoral process into disarray.
Several other groups have also decided to stay out of the poll, citing concerns that “a free-and-fair vote is not possible due to the continued political crisis in Iraq,” and this could throw the elections into further chaos.
With voters staying away from registration and political tensions on the rise, fears of a low turnout in the elections could make them look irrelevant in the eyes of growing numbers of Iraqis.
One scenario is that the elections will be postponed, throwing the whole political process into question at a time when the stability of Iraq depends upon a legitimate government.
Another scenario is that a new parliament and a new government dominated by pro-Iran political groups and militias will usher in the end of Iraq’s fragile political system based on a kind of power-sharing and consensus-making.
A third scenario is that Al-Sadr will return to take part in elections that he has cast as “rigged” and fraudulent,” resulting in another dysfunctional parliament in Iraq and another stalemated government.
These stark perspectives put into question the uptick of statements of support, particularly from UN officials and western diplomats, for Iraq’s October elections, reducing them to political naivety, if not total absurdity.
All this means that the elections will be taken less seriously, meaning that hopes of the vote rescuing Iraq from its current deadlock are likely to be a pipe dream.
Moreover, the failure of the elections to end the deadlock raises the worrying possibility of further instability in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly