The Iraq Report: Iraq still in chaos one year after elections

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7 min read
13 October, 2022
With support for the political process at an all-time low, the popular foundation of what constitutes an Iraqi democracy is now in peril and may be at risk of total collapse.

Iraq has passed yet another concerning milestone as the country’s last general election was held more than a year ago with a caretaker government still administering the nation’s affairs.

This governmental paralysis has seen a year of significant upheavals, administrative chaos, increased insecurity, and political violence, and further entrenched chronic instability in a country that has seen little else since the US-led invasion in 2003.

This has been the longest Iraq has been without a government since elections were first held in post-Baathist Iraq.

While it is rare for governments to form immediately following the conclusion of elections, the gradually increasing interim period between polling dates and the formation of governments presages a desperate future for the war-torn country that could see its current political process collapse entirely, and suddenly.

"Governmental paralysis has seen a year of significant upheavals, administrative chaos, increased insecurity, political violence, and further entrenched chronic instability"

Public lack of faith

As Iraq has been touted as a democracy since the ouster of long-time dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 at the hands of an international US-led coalition, its success has long been predicated on the buy-in of the Iraqi people themselves.

Where a dictatorship could rely on legitimacy through violence, threats, and intimidation, democracy by its nature relies on popular participation in the political process to derive its legitimacy.

However, modern Iraq has seen popular support for democracy rapidly decline over the years. In fact, the rapid decline has been matched by a longing for the stability provided by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

“When the invasion happened I was just a child,” Haidar Ali, a merchant in the southern Shia holy city of Najaf, told The New Arab. “I hated Saddam because that was what everyone else did. Now I’ve lived through ‘democracy’ as an adult, I think Saddam was better.”

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This attitude has been reflected with increasing regularity since the invasion. While some initially greeted the downfall of the Baathists, they were then re-interviewed years later only to have changed their minds and expressed regrets.

Kadhim al-Jubouri, a Baghdad mechanic, was so jubilant that the Baathists had been ousted from power that he took to the streets and repeatedly swung a sledgehammer at Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdaws Square in central Baghdad. The same statue was later infamously torn down by US troops in one of the more iconic images of 2003.

Jubouri was later interviewed by the BBC in 2016. Having witnessed 13 years of difference between Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s newfound democracy, Jubouri expressed that he was ashamed of having taken a hammer to the former dictator’s statue and instead now wanted the former dictator back, exclaiming that rather than one tyrant Iraq now had one on every street corner.

This decline has presided over gradually shrinking voter turnout over the years. In the two general polls held in 2005, turnout was at 58 and 79 percent respectively. In 2010, this dipped to 62 percent which, while lower, was still an acceptable turnout which held more or less steady in 2014.

The Iraq Report: Chaos reigns one year after elections
This has been the longest Iraq has been without a government since elections were first held in post-Baathist Iraq. [Getty]

However, by 2018, turnout had plummeted to 45 percent, despite the fact that the Islamic State (IS) group had been declared defeated a year earlier and many had expected Iraq’s ostensibly increased security situation to reflect a more stable polity.

What transpired, in reality, was a deepening of Iraq’s underlying political and social crises, far from the solely securitised atmosphere Iraqi elites had insisted was the reason behind its political malaise.

In 2021, and in a staggering display of public insouciance with their political elites and the almost two-decade-old promise of democratic accountability, stability, and economic prosperity that had failed to materialise, almost three out of five of all Iraqis decided to boycott the elections.

With support for the political process – rather than any one political candidate or government – at an all-time low, the popular foundation of what constitutes an Iraqi democracy is now in peril and may be at risk of total collapse.

"Rather than set the standard for behaviour in the public sphere and acting as leaders, Iraqi elites have instead presided over almost two decades of rampant corruption, sectarian violence, and nepotism"

Chaos in the halls of power

This public disdain for Iraqi politics and politicians is further exacerbated and enhanced by the behaviour of the key players in today’s political crisis, all of whom have been involved in some capacity or another since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

While he was ostensibly the winner of the past two general elections in 2021 and 2018, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also won those polls arguably by virtue of the fact that he had a more organised grassroots movement to back him at a time when the general populace was not interested in the elections.

However, Sadr’s mercurial tendencies have seen him make alliances, break alliances, and then dig himself into isolation as Iraq’s other political players attempt to move on without him.

First, Sadr campaigned on an anti-sectarian platform, despite his history as the leader of some of Iraq’s most infamous and deadly sectarian Shia militias.

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To bolster his anti-sectarian credentials, Sadr forged a political understanding with both the leading Kurdish Sunni powers governing out of the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil as well as the Sunni Arab bloc led by parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi.

Between October last year and January this year, Sadr and his new allies were successful in having Halbousi reinstated as speaker but had failed to make any further gains. The Kurdish candidates for the presidency were repeatedly blocked by Sadr’s rivals from the Coordination Framework (CF) – an umbrella bloc of Shia Islamists with overt ties to Iran.

Rather than continue to use his parliamentary dominance to stall out his opponents, Sadr took the extraordinary step – and without consultation with his allies – to command all his MPs to resign their parliamentary seats in June. In one move, Sadr ceded his parliamentary majority to his apparently erstwhile foes and rivals, leaving his allies stranded and forced to reconsider their positions.

The Iraq Report: Chaos reigns one year after elections
Sadr's mercurial tendencies have seen him make alliances, break alliances, and then dig himself into isolation as Iraq’s other political players attempt to move on without him. [Getty]

Since then, there have been short outbursts of violence as Sadr continues to demand new elections, including by attempting to force the Supreme Federal Court – Iraq’s highest judicial authority – to declare the 2021 elections that he won null and void.

Naturally, this would mean that Sadr was effectively saying that his own electoral victory was illegitimate, a reality not lost on either his foes or the general Iraqi public.

With both sides engaging in brinkmanship and pushing each other ever closer to an all-out Shia civil war, Iraq is no closer to establishing a new government. In the interim, Iraqi elites are content to use violence across the country, burn down each other’s headquarters, and have repeatedly made it clear that they have no intention of compromising.

Rather than set the standard for behaviour in the public sphere and acting as leaders, Iraqi elites have instead presided over almost two decades of rampant corruption, sectarian violence, nepotism and an economy that cannot boast many improvements over the Baathist era which was in fact handicapped by an international sanctions regime – an economic restriction the new republic cannot use as an excuse.

"With both sides engaging in brinkmanship and pushing each other ever closer to an all-out Shia civil war, Iraq is no closer to establishing a new government"

It is therefore unsurprising that so-called “Saddamist” tendencies are being revived across Iraq after the abject failure of the US-installed democracy to achieve its stated ambitions. This may ultimately lead to a situation similar to Afghanistan in August last year where the entire system collapsed suddenly and unexpectedly, leading to the return of the Taliban who had been ousted two decades earlier.

While Saddam Hussein is long gone, the Baathists are still a highly organised political force despite their proscription in Iraq. They are active internationally and have been effective in providing a counter-narrative, creating nostalgia for the former regime despite its history of brutality and violence against its own people.

Should that transpire, it will not only impact Iraq but will also be viewed as a powerful statement on American exceptionalism and its mounting isolation and waning power in an increasingly multipolar world.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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The Iraq Report