Why Iraq's lost youth see elections as a road to nowhere

An Iraqi youth sits leaning on a wall with a graffiti mural showing a protester with text in Arabic reaing "we see the future from the narrowest angles", at the anti-government sit-in in the capital's Tahrir Square on December 24, 2019
4 min read
06 October, 2021

Two years ago in Tahrir Square, near the Tigris River in central Baghdad, the October Revolution began. It was the largest grassroots mobilisation in Iraq’s modern history.

For months, under a shower of tear gas and water jets, thousands of Iraqis chanted slogans for a country free from corruption and the influence of neighbouring Iran.

They demanded basic services such as clean water and electricity, as a violent response by security forces left nearly 600 dead and thousands injured.

This year, the second anniversary of the revolution unfolded without incident. A procession of only a few hundred people reiterated these demands, which were never listened to in the first place.

"The October Revolution was the largest grassroots mobilisation in Iraq's modern history"

Most of them are barely twenty years old, a reflection of a country where the average age is 21. They waved Iraqi flags to the rhythm of catchy music, but the mood was anything but celebratory.

Wahad Abdallah Najim comes forward slowly, his wheelchair pushed by a friend. The 20-year-old was shot in the back during one of the deadliest days of the protests.

Surrounded by his friends, he has a mocking half-smile as he jokes amongst his peers. But his thoughts are clearly elsewhere. The government had promised him medical treatment abroad, and Wahad even met Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi last month.

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Since then, nothing has happened. "His entourage had insisted that I meet him," he told The New Arab, clearly disillusioned. "His government is exactly like any other before. We want a total change in the political system, but it will certainly not come from these elections, which will lead to nothing".

On 10 October, Iraqis are expected to go to the polls for parliamentary elections. Early voting was one of the demands of the October 2019 protest movement and the political groups that grew out of it.

And yet, several of these independent parties will likely boycott the vote, a protest against the lack of security and threats to several candidates.

iraq protest - afp
In October 2019, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets demanding an end to corruption and sectarianism. [Getty]

Iraqi law prohibits political parties from having armed wings, but several groups openly violate this measure. The Fatah alliance, for example, brings together dozens of Shia militias including Kata’ib Hezbollah, as does the Shia populist movement led by Moqtada al-Sadr.

Technical malfunctions and security measures will also restrict votes, including those of Iraqis abroad and people with disabilities, which includes a substantial number of people in a country plagued by conflict for 40 years.

Indeed, many fear a record abstention. In the last elections in 2018, the turnout stood at 44.52%, as reported by official figures. Detractors say even that figure was inflated. This time, participation could be much lower.

"These elections will lead nowhere. They are organised by the same government that killed us, we do not trust them"

Apathy reigns among young people. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, the number of suicides per year has been steadily increasing since 2016, especially among young people.

The OHCHR cites "social, psychological and economic reasons", in addition to the "factor of poverty and the repercussions of the wars and the deterioration of the human rights". In a country of more than 41 million people, at least seven million live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is over 40%.

Ali Riyadh was on the front lines during the protests in October 2019, until security forces emptied Tahrir Square at the end of October 2020. He has since vowed never to take part in a demonstration again.

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The 27-year-old, employed at the Ministry of Culture for $300 a month, says he no longer hopes for anything. “I will not vote and I don’t want to hear anything about Tahrir Square anymore. What's the point?” He shrugs, sitting in a café of Baghdad.

"There is nothing we can do but come back here," counters Muhammad, 23. For him, the sporadic demonstrations in Tahrir Square have become a tradition. But he won't go to the polls either.

“These elections will lead nowhere. They are organised by the same government that killed us, we do not trust them,” he says. Around him, the flags continue to fly, more a force of habit than hope for change.

Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq

Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti