Analysis: Iraq after the elections

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 14 Oct 2021

Iraqis voted for a new parliament in last weekend’s elections, but it could be weeks or months before a viable new government takes office.

Iraq after the elections
Followers of Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr celebrate holding his posters in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. Initial results showed Al-Sadr winning 74 seats, the sunni bloc 72, and Kurdish parties 61 (photo: AP)

Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament in elections that are widely seen as being a popularity test for the political factions that have ruled the battered nation since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and amid concerns about repeats of past deadlocks.

The elections were held for 329 seats in parliament at 83 polling stations across Iraq, including in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. More than one million members of the security forces as well as prisoners and displaced people voted in special early polls on Friday.

More than 24 million Iraqis were eligible to cast their votes in the polls. Some 3,240 candidates ran in the single-phase elections, including 940 women, with contests being fought out between political blocs formed on ethno-sectarian bases.

The country’s Independent Higher Elections Commission (IHEC) said that voter turnout in all provinces had been 41.1 per cent, but polling station officials and local and foreign monitors said it could have been as low as 25 per cent, with the country’s disillusioned young people and middle classes largely staying at home.

The initial results showed a political class accused of doing little to provide basic services or secure the country’s citizens preserving the status quo.

The decision to call early parliamentary elections was a response to protracted street protests in 2019 urging the reform of Iraq’s post-2003 political system, which is based on ethno-sectarian quotas. The security forces quashed the demonstrations with deadly force, killing some 600 protesters and wounding thousands others.

Prior to the elections, many   Iraqis showed apathy and distrust, saying that they were disillusioned with politics and felt their votes would not make a difference. Many had called for a boycott of the elections, citing the mounting influence of entrenched political groups and powerful militias.

To counter the voter distrust that led to a record low turnout in the 2018 polls, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi pushed voters to go to the polling stations this time round.

Election workers reportedly offered money to those who were late in picking up their voting cards or went to people’s doors in some neighbourhoods to hand them over.

In addition to the low turnout, the polls were marred by intimidation, threats and arrests. Claims of malfunctions in the electronic electoral system were also reported that some observers said could affect the process.   

Iraq’s elections are complex affairs, and while all politics is local, in Iraq it is parochial. The country may be the Middle East’s least homogeneous nation, and its sectarian and ethnic differences are often reflected in the country’s elections.

While democratic systems are meant to allow political parties to compete for power through elections by offering different socioeconomic programmes, Iraq’s political factions have turned the country’s elections into a battlefield over identities.

Some of the parties that have run the political system in Iraq over the past two decades have been afflicted with corruption and have exercised power through patronage. Their leaders neither believe in democratic institutions nor the state, and they do not respect the constitution or the law.

Many Iraqis hoped that changes in Iraq’s electoral law would make it easier for independent candidates, especially activists from the protest movement, to be elected to challenge the parties in power and end their dominance over the country’s parliament.

Had that happened, it would have made these elections the most representative in the country’s post-US invasion history. But the struggle the pro-reform activists faced was highlighted by the use of deadly force against them, pushing most of them to quit the race.

The focus of attention in the elections was on the Shia political groups that have been playing a dominant role in Iraqi politics since the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-led regime.

These factions have used their community’s numerical majority to claim the prime minister’s post and have had sufficient leverage to control key ministries and other levers of the state including the security forces and the massive paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Force.

While the Shia political factions following Saddam’s fall maintained a united front, deep differences forced them to run separately in this year’s elections, opening the polls up to fierce competition. The main Shia groups fought fiercely for the lion’s share of positions in government, allowing them to nominate a new prime minister.

Under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, the president asks the largest bloc in parliament to nominate a new prime minister to form a government, a move which has for the last two decades made a Shia political alliance imperative for the community’s empowerment.

The sharp divisions among the Shia political groups this time round are not expected to deprive the majority Shias of the country’s most powerful post, but the fragmented Shia politics could trigger a fierce internecine power struggle within the community.

The two leading Shia blocs, the Sadrist Movement backed by prominent cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Al-Fatah Coalition headed by militia leader Hadi Al-Ameri, that dominated Iraq’s outgoing parliament are fighting to lead the Shia political scene.

Each is counting on gaining most of the seats in Iraq’s Shia-dominated provinces in order to declare itself the largest bloc in parliament and thus gain the post of prime minister or at least to be kingmaker in a larger Shia coalition.

Other Shia lists include former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi and Shia cleric Ammar Al-Hakim’s National State Forces Alliance and former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc.     

Shia politicians struggled with the same problems in previous elections because they had to put their houses in order before making deals with the other two main communities in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, over the key posts of the president of the country and the speaker of the parliament and the makeup of the new government.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the official results of the elections were not yet known, but a dispute has erupted over the initial outcome a sign that the Shia politics will further complicate subsequent coalition talks.

Iraq is therefore likely to see more haggling, and the negotiations over forming a new government could drag on. As usual, all the blocs will struggle to find common ground in sharing the political space and the state’s coffers in line with the sectarian quota system that is in place.   

To be sure, another protracted government deadlock will prove detractors’ views that the periodic ritual of elections in Iraq is worthless and has been unable either to produce a working democracy or to resolve the legitimacy crisis of Iraq’s entrenched political leadership.

Instead, elite recycling will be a key component of the next power-sharing agreement in the country, reflecting what pro-reform Iraqis have feared in the shape of yet another rotation of the country’s ruling elite.

While this reproduction of a dysfunctional regime will further increase the disillusionment among Iraqis who rose up against corruption and mismanagement in 2019, the repeat of the same formula will also encourage the country’s armed groups and militias to continue their seeking control of political assets.

Other fundamental questions about the election results will remain, however, and in particular how much they will impact the volatile region, taking into consideration how much Iraq’s domestic politics are associated with foreign influence.

The elections have in part highlighted how much is at stake for the regional and world powers, with some fearing that a new generation of Iraqi politicians that could emerge after the elections could have a huge bearing on the region’s future political direction.

If the past is the best guide, and if there is no major change to reshape Iraq’s domestic trajectory, the regional powerhouses will remain fully engaged in Iraq, warranting growing interests in the beleaguered country.

One of the major interests for foreign players is the identity of Iraq’s next prime minister, a post which has been under the radar of powers outside Iraq since talks began about early elections in 2019 despite endeavours to influence the formation of the next Iraqi administration.

While Iran, which maintains crucial influence in its western neighbour, will remain a major player, the US, the EU and key regional powers are all expected to continue defending their visions and interests in Iraq.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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