The Iraq Report: Elections will reinforce the status quo

An Iraqi protester gestures the v-sign during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment at Tayaran square in Baghdad on October 2, 2019. [Getty]
8 min read
05 October, 2021

On Sunday, Iraq will hold its sixth national vote since the United States led an international “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003 to invade and topple the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Rather than democratic change, Iraqis have since complained of a sectarian, corrupt, and nepotistic political system that has brought little positive change to their lives.

The vote was originally scheduled for next year but was brought forward to satisfy one of the early demands of protesters who took to the streets in October 2019, leading to the resignation of the Adel Abdul Mahdi government in 2020 and more than 600 demonstrators killed by state security forces and allied Shia militias.

However, and despite the call for early elections being heeded, another demand regarding bringing the killers of protesters to justice has either been totally ignored, or the fledgling administration of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is simply incapable of holding violent Iran-backed militias and politicians to account.

"As is usual in Iraqi politics since 2003, it is rare that individual parties will run on their own platform and manifesto, instead coalescing their efforts in electoral lists and blocs"

Who is running in the elections?

As is usual in Iraqi politics since 2003, it is rare that individual parties will run on their own platform and manifesto, instead coalescing their efforts in electoral lists and blocs with parties of similar leanings or whom they have deals with over which party gets what ministries once the dust settles.

While incumbent prime minister Kadhimi had previously stated that he would not contest the elections and has not fielded candidates, he has unusually made a bid as an independent, seemingly hoping that anti-militia blocs are successful and choose him as prime minister for another term due to his perceived neutrality.

In the elections of 2018, radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – who did not run for office himself – led a bloc consisting of working-class Shia candidates who joined forces with the Iraqi Communist Party. This was interesting as the Shia clergy have historically declared communists as being heretics and apostates, illustrating just how pragmatic Iraqi politics can be.

Sadr’s Sairoun alliance – as it was known – won 54 of 329 seats and spent the next few years expanding its power within Iraq’s institutions and ministries, often acting as a kingmaker for potential coalition governments.

However, the 2018 elections drew a paltry 44.5% turnout, casting doubt on the prospects of Iraq’s political system being able to survive beyond being considered a theatre of power changing hands amongst the same elites, backed by regional and global powers such as the US and Iran.

An Iraqi student waves his country's national flag during anti-government protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on January 28, 2020
More than 600 protesters have been killed since demonstrations against corruption and sectarianism began in October 2019. [Getty]

Sadr’s Sairoun will once again contest the elections and, if the trend of low turnouts continues, then he is likely to clinch a small majority compared to the other blocs due to his organisation’s ability to rapidly mobilise Shia working-class communities.

The Sadrists have even released a mobile phone app that not only provides information on how to access the movement’s social and public services that run parallel to the state’s ordinarily abysmal offerings, but provides directions for users on how to reach their local polling station and how to vote correctly for the Sadrists.

Although Sadr has always enjoyed good relations and support from Iran, the more overt pro-Iran factions have joined forces primarily under the aegis of the Fatah Alliance under the leadership of former cabinet minister and leader of the Badr Organisation, Hadi al-Ameri.

Fatah primarily consists of the leaders of Shia Islamist militant organisations who fought against the Islamic State (IS) group as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known as the Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, which was formally recognised as a component of the Iraqi armed forces in 2017.

Fatah also contains groups the United States and other global powers have designated as terrorist organisations, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which would make any significant victory by the bloc problematic for Washington as it seeks to engage Iraq.

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However, the PMF has been mired in controversy for not only killing Sunni Arab civilians and being implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the war against IS that began in 2014, but they have – along with the Sadrists – also been implicated in the murder of hundreds of mainly Shia Arab protesters since 2019.

The violence against the protesters – ostensibly backed by Iran – and Kadhimi’s inability to hold the militias responsible to account has itself caused a fundamental split in the camp of the activists who led the 2019 protest movement.

While most have called for a total boycott of Sunday’s vote, a small faction called Imtitad has emerged under the leadership of pharmacologist Alaa al-Rikabi.

Rikabi’s platform largely echoes the demands of the protest movement but is expected to garner few votes as most of the activists will either boycott the polls entirely or else support Shia Islamist parties that are not deemed to be overly subservient to Iran.

"The violence against the protesters – ostensibly backed by Iran – and Kadhimi's inability to hold the militias responsible to account, has itself caused a fundamental split in the camp of the activists who led the 2019 protest movement"

Such parties will be led by former Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi – who presided over the defeat of IS in 2017 – and Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim in the National State Forces Alliance. Abadi has a history of being an erstwhile member of the Shia Islamist Dawa Party which dominated Iraqi politics until 2018, while Hakim has a family history and connection with the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, a Shia fundamentalist group that sought to emulate Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Iran.

Both movements have extensive historical ties with Iran but are viewed as being more independent than the Fatah Alliance or former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition which is also running but is not expected to do well as it only garnered 25 seats in 2018.

What is likely to happen after elections?

As is clear from the above, the primary shakers and movers of Iraqi politics remain Shia Islamist groups, and largely have leanings toward Iran in one way or another. Either they have historically been incubated by Tehran and therefore “owe” the Islamic Republic for its patronage, or else they are militias actively working with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who also happen to field political parties despite it being forbidden under the Iraqi constitution.

Aside from the Shia alliances and blocs, the Kurds are the next most influential players. The Kurdistan Region has had formally recognised autonomy since 2005, yet still contest national elections and the constitution guarantees the office of president to an ethnic Kurd.

An electoral banner for a candidate is seen in Iraq's second city of Mosul on 5 September 2021. [Getty]

In 2018, Kurdish parties gained 58 seats which effectively put them ahead of the Sadrists. However, the Kurds are themselves divided, mainly between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which holds sway in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) group that has its power in Sulaimaniyah near the Iranian border.

Despite these divisions, the Kurds significant control over a large proportion of the Iraqi legislature, and their constitutional right to the presidency, guarantees them a kingmaker position and allows them to haggle with the central Baghdad authorities that are dominated by the Shia blocs.

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On the fringes of those main Shia blocs are of course the Sunni coalitions that rely on tribal loyalties while simultaneously piggybacking off the larger Shia alliances. For instance, Khamis al-Khanjar, a tycoon who made his wealth off of Baathist-era favours, has allied himself with the Fatah Alliance.

The Sunni Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi also has strong ties with Shia militias and therefore he will probably seek another term in office once the elections are over, pointing to his pro-PMF credentials.

Sunni Arab population centres such as Ramadi and Mosul remain in ruins following the war against IS, and many Sunnis have been internally displaced and are still forbidden from returning to their homes in places such as Jurf al-Sakhr, which was cleansed of Sunnis and replaced by Shia inhabitants in 2014.

"The primary shakers and movers of Iraqi politics remain Shia Islamist groups, and largely have leanings toward Iran in one way or another"

As such, and considering Halbousi’s and Khanjar’s proximity to the Shia militias who perpetrated these acts, Sunni Arab voters are unlikely to turn out to polling stations. Even if they wanted to, many have been denied their identity papers, effectively cutting them out of the political process altogether.

In such an environment, and considering the stark sectarian and ethnic divisions that have led to the so-called muhasasa system of ethno-sectarian politics being constitutionally ingrained, it is highly unlikely that Sunday’s vote will mark a break away from Iraq’s recent past.

Not only have the Sunni Arab community been effectively excised apart from a few token politicians, but parties and blocs continue to run election campaigns based on partisan interests. There are no national parties that bridge societal divisions to try and find a common vision for Iraq.

Even though anti-graft activists have called for more democratic accountability and transparency, and a distancing from both Iran and the US, they have also been sidelined by the state’s failure to curb violence against them launched by politically compromised security forces and Shia militias.

This represents a key structural failure in the Iraqi state. Either law and order exists, with equality of accountability for all regardless of their social background or political connections, or it does not.

In the Iraqi case, it is clear that there have been no fundamental changes and that the upcoming elections will herald a new chapter in the revolving door of elites profiting while Iraqi voters suffer.

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

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The Iraq Report