Iraq braces for elections amid anxiety

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 31 Aug 2021

With ballot day looming in Iraq, an anxious nation has been hearing the rumblings of electoral alarms, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq braces for elections amid anxiety

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was basking in the international limelight with the support of the country’s allies this week at the most extraordinary conference ever held by his government. The summit, which brought Iraq’s neighbours together, was meant to help the beleaguered nation pitch itself as a regional mediator.

Yet, despite the upbeat atmosphere surrounding the occasion, multiple questions remain about how the Baghdad Conference could help in tackling the mounting challenges lying ahead for Iraq, including holding viable national elections next month.

The elections are widely seen as being decisive for reform and change in a country that has been struggling to rebuild after nearly two decades of ruinous wars, sectarian strife, foreign intervention and widespread corruption and mismanagement. 

In her latest routine briefing to the UN Security Council last week, Geanine Hennis-Plasschaert, head of the UN mission in Iraq, warned the international community that Iraq’s crucial parliamentary elections next month were threatened by a perfect storm.

“Misinformation is abundant and wide-ranging,” Hennis-Plasschaert said. “It is high time to acknowledge that the credibility of these October elections will prove essential for Iraq’s future.”

Hennis-Plasschaert’s warning about the credibility and transparency of the voting has increased concerns over the integrity of the elections and hardened fears of a deepening political crisis that could further stall Iraq’s transition.

The UN envoy’s warning came hours before the country’s judiciary announced a crackdown on a network linked to the political leadership that has been using social media to spread false information about the elections on 10 October.

A statement by the judiciary said investigators had found that the group had set up an online network “first and foremost to manipulate the upcoming elections and change their results.”

The second goal of the group was to create political chaos by “blemishing [the reputation] of Iraqi politicians, societal figures and government leaders,” the statement said.

Quoting an investigating judge, the judiciary said two of the accused had admitted that they had plotted to use social media to influence the elections and hired a group of experts to “rig the next parliamentary elections” in Iraq.

The judge said the group had created a Telegram account under the name “the Lady of the Green Zone” and pinned posts on it that aimed at “creating chaos and deepening the rift between the political parties.”

The Iraqi judiciary did not disclose further details, but the TV channel Al-Ahad, which belongs to the Iran-backed Assaib Ahlluhaq group, said the account’s administrators were officials working at the office of Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi. 

Inspection had shown that the account carries posts favourable to Al-Kadhimi, who is not running in the elections, and lashes out at pro-Iran groups and leaders in Iraq. Other posts on social media, however, blamed the fake Telegram group on Sunni politicians engaged in a fierce electoral dogfight.

Details of other attempts to release politically damaging information and spread propaganda about political opponents have also burst across the Iraqi sky as election day approaches and competition intensifies.

Former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi told an Iraqi television news network last week that Al-Kadhimi had participated in rigging the last elections in 2018 when he was the country’s intelligence chief.

“He [Al-Kadhimi] came to my office and told me he had managed to breach the electronic electoral system in four minutes and a few seconds,” Allawi told the Asharqiyya TV channel without further elaboration.

Elections held in Iraq since the ouster of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 have been hit with claims of fraud by opposing parties. What was supposed to mark the start of a new democratic era for Iraq has turned into an ongoing political crisis as charges of vote-tampering have followed each election.

Competing claims of vote-rigging and irregularities have been flung at all the key players in the elections in what has become a chaotic routine, often leading to months before forming a new government.

In 2018, Iraq’s Supreme Court ordered a hand recount of the ballots from the national elections after widespread allegations of fraud had embarrassed political leaders and marred the initial results.

Several election observers, including an EU team, had raised doubts about the vote’s integrity.

Early elections were one of the key demands of pro-reform protesters who began a mass movement in Iraq in October 2019. After months of a violent crackdown and intimidation, the country’s entrenched political parties agreed to draft a new election law and fix a date for a ballot.

While there is much to fear about the integrity of the voting, infighting, entrenched militias, the sectarian divide and a long legacy of distrust in Iraq’s governing system remain stubborn challenges that cast shadows over the entire political process.

Some parties that grew out of the October protests have formed blocs to run in the upcoming elections, hoping that they can contribute to the hoped-for changes. Others have opted to stay out of the elections as a result of security concerns following the killing, kidnapping and disappearance of prominent activists.

One key issue in the elections is how the populist Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has been manoeuvring, seeking a dominant role for himself in the face of strong competition by other Shia parties already positioning themselves to divide up the electoral spoils.

Al-Sadr reversed his decision to boycott the October elections on Friday and said his movement would take part in order to help “end corruption”after he had abruptly announced in July that he would not take part in the vote.

Al-Sadr had claimed earlier that his Sadrist Movement would secure the majority of the seats in the 319-member parliament, allowing him to have a final say on the country’s affairs, including nominating Iraq’s next prime minister.

The powerful Shia leader, long known for his unpredictability, said he was returning to the race after receiving pledges from political leaders to reform the country and put an end to its lingering woes. 

Though Al-Sadr’s change of mind was welcomed by Iraqi leaders, among ordinary Iraqis and many analysts’ concerns are high of another deadlocked election and the possible eruption of violence, especially if Al-Sadr’s followers continue to push the claim that their movement will win a landslide victory.

Even if the voting produces no clear winner among the Shia groups to form a new government, Iraqis will still watch a post-election scenario unfolding that is similar to those that they have seen before, when these factions fought for their pieces in the cake in what they will again call a “power-sharing” government.

In the weeks ahead, Al-Kadhimi and his international and regional backers, in particular those gathered at the summit meeting in Baghdad this week, will need to ensure that there will be free-and-fair elections in Iraq that will deprive the ruling factions of their ability to shape the outcome of the voting.

If there are widespread claims of fraud, or if the turnout by fatigued and sceptical voters is low, it will spark concerns about the legitimacy of the elections and will send feelings of alarm and fear about the future of democracy in the country among Iraqis who have been pushing for change.

Such an outcome will render the favourable headlines the Baghdad summit meeting has received meaningless and will send Iraq back to square one where the mathematics of the dysfunctional Iraqi political system will remain the same. 

This is what makes most Iraqis anxious about the forthcoming elections and about whether much-awaited changes will come about as a result of the vote. There are also concerns that violence could erupt in their aftermath.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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