'Apathy and despair' as Iraq looks to October election

'Apathy and despair' as Iraq looks to October election
Many Iraqis are entering their country's election period with apathy and despair, with little hopes that elections will change the system.
4 min read
20 September, 2021
An election poster behind a damaged building [Getty]

War-scarred Iraq will hold a parliamentary election next month but Sajad, a 23-year-old man sitting with his friends in a Baghdad cafe, doesn't really care.

"I see the politicians' posters in the street, but I don't know the names or the programmes," says the man with a shaved head and tattooed forearms.

"I think they all have the same programme: 'We will do this, we will do that.' It's all promises," he scoffs, a sentiment shared by his friends.

Iraq is emerging from almost two decades of war and insurgency since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and promised to bring freedom and democracy.

Although parliamentary polls are to be held on October 10, there is little popular hope for major change through the ballot box, and widespread disillusionment about a political caste widely seen as inept and corrupt.

Sajad, who works in a media production company, says he has no plans to vote.

Many people feel the same, and there are fears voter turnout could drop below the official rate of 44.5 percent from the most recent legislative election in 2018.

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In Iraq's public squares and along main avenues there are banners of candidates, and rallies, often attended by local notables and tribal chiefs, have sought to mobilise support.

But overall, there has been little buzz as most Iraqis worry more about a painful economic crisis deepened by low oil prices and the Covid pandemic.

'Why should I vote?'

The polls were initially scheduled for 2022 but moved forward to June this year by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, then postponed to October.

The early polls were a concession to a protest movement that broke out in the autumn of 2019, venting anger against corruption, soaring youth unemployment and crumbling public services.

Nearly 25 million Iraqis are eligible to vote, to elect 329 lawmakers from a field of more than 3,200 candidates in 83 constituencies.

A 25 percent quota has been reserved for women in the Council of Representatives, the unicameral assembly located inside Baghdad's high-security Green Zone.

A new electoral law expands the number of constituencies and scraps list-based voting in favour of votes for individual candidates.

But candidates can still run on behalf of a party or coalition, meaning the traditional blocs and patronage networks will likely remain powerful.

Mohammed, an economics graduate who works in a shop selling olive-, almond and other types of oils, says he feels "the election won't bring change".

At age 30, he keeps postponing the idea of marriage because of the searing economic difficulties.

"Basic services are not provided to me. Why should I go to vote?" he said, as the country suffers daily power cuts.

"The last time roads were paved in my neighbourhood was before 2003," added Mohammed, who like many Iraqis prefers not to give his full name when discussing politics.

In his Baghdad constituency, he said he knows two of the five candidates, but hasn't bothered to check their electoral platforms.

"The political factions have been the same since 2003; the only thing that changes are the faces," he said.

He denounced Iraq's entrenched clientelism, saying "the only people who vote are those who've been promised a job, or people who vote for someone close to them or from their tribe".

'Proliferation of weapons'

It is difficult to predict a winner in the race, where powerful blocs include the pro-Iran Shiite camp around the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network and the Sadrist camp of popular Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr.

Political scientist Marsin Alshamary said the election will be held in a climate of "apathy and despair, especially among young people".

"Most people think that these elections will achieve nothing," added the researcher from the US-based Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Voter turnout "has been declining over previous elections cycles," she said. "In 2018 it was very bad. There is a very strong likelihood that this election will be worse."

The gloom has deepened after the protest movement that started in October 2019 ended with little change and many dashed expectations.

Many activists were murdered, kidnapped or intimidated. No one has claimed responsibility for the violence and no one has been held accountable.

The activists blame the "militias" in a country where Iranian-funded armed groups have steadily gained influence.

Another Iraqi who said he won't cast his ballot is 28-year-old Ali, who argues that he does not want to be complicit in the "crime" the election represents for him.

"There will be no transparent elections," the young man said.

"The money of politicians dominates, there is a proliferation of weapons in all the constituencies. Whoever has the weapons will win."