Elections usher in a new wave of political opposition in Iraq
The Iraqi elections, which took place on 10 October, came on the back of mass protests that gripped Baghdad and the Southern Provinces exactly two years earlier.
Demonstrators poured onto the streets to call for basic services, a solution to politically sanctioned corruption and an end to the Muhasasa al-Ta'ifia - the sectarian political system imposed on the country by exiled Iraqi politicians and their US allies following the 2003 invasion - which they hold responsible for state dysfunction. In its place, protesters call for an ideology based on secular nationalism and a united Iraqi identity.
Early elections, a central demand of the protest movement, have resulted in major losses for some of Iraq's key establishment parties. More importantly, however, the elections seem to have ushered in a new organised Iraqi political opposition that has developed a three-pronged attack on the political system.
"More importantly, however, the elections seem to have ushered in a new organised Iraqi political opposition that has developed a three-pronged attack on the political system"
To vote or not to vote?
The October protests were met with excessive and disproportionate use of force by the Iraqi Security Forces and militia groups, resulting in the killing of 700 activists and the injury of at least 25,000 others. This upsurge in violence continues unabated, even as protests have dwindled, leading to the killing of at least 30 high-profile activists through intelligence-led targeted assassinations. In the run-up to elections, the violence seemingly split opposition parties and groups that emerged from the protests in regard to whether participation in elections was the best avenue for substantive political change.
Some parties such as al-Bayat al-Watani decided to boycott elections and call for a complete overhaul of the post-invasion political system. They argued that the Muhasasa enabled a form of procedural democracy, whereby citizens are given the opportunity to vote every four years, but the same faces that have dominated Iraqi politics since 2003 remain in power. It has not allowed for the development of effective democracy, where Iraqis are empowered to have a real say in shaping politics.
Others, notably the Imtidad Movement, argued that participating in elections was the only means possible to make gradual changes to the Iraqi political system.
Despite this initial split over tactics, what seems to have emerged after the elections is a united opposition movement with the potential to push for radical reforms through the street, and on local and national levels.
Iraq's new political opposition
Among the most interesting outcomes of the October elections are the major losses some establishment parties experienced. For example, Fatah - an alliance of parties linked to militia groups from al-Hashd al-Shaabi and headed by the leader of the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Ameri - won 17 seats, a far cry from the 48 seats they previously won during the 2018 elections.
Some have argued that this is the result of their campaign strategy which focused on the Hashd's role in defeating Islamic State (IS), rather than protesters'demands such as services and an end to corruption. What this also indicates is that the Iraqi public after the protesters are no longer mobilised across sectarian lines or easily swayed by political rhetoric that pits one sect against another. The decrease in Fatah's popularity may also be the result of the fact that the Iraqi public holds militia groups largely responsible for the violence deployed against activists and critical voices since October 2019.
The losses experienced by establishment parties and candidates also demonstrate that the October protests changed the political stakes, with many of the politicians who promised state resources in exchange for votes fairing badly. For example, Haytham al-Jabouri, a candidate for the State of Law coalition in the Mansour area in Baghdad, promised 206,000 jobs to teachers on temporary contracts in the run-up to elections, but nevertheless lost the seat.
In addition, Fatah and its allies also promised 30,000 temporary jobs to Hashd fighters, which did not amount to votes. This suggests that the patronage networks on which the Iraqi state has long functioned are no longer viable and citizens are increasingly wary of promises of state resources that hardly ever materialise.
The Sadrists, under the leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr, increased their seats from 54 in 2018 to 73 in 2021 with 628,000 votes. This was the result of their strong electoral base, tactics in fielding candidates and encouraging followers to vote and their use of anti-militia and foreign interference rhetoric.
In comparison, the oppositional Imtidad Movement, running for the first time in elections, received a total of 300,000 but won only 9 seats. In part, the sizeable number of votes received by Imtidad demonstrates the huge popularity the new protest parties have in comparison to the traditional elite. However, it also points to some flaws within the new elections law, which is based on a first-past-the-post system where citizens vote directly for a candidate in a particular district and the most votes win. As a result, a large number of votes were wasted, denying parties like Imtidad a larger share of parliamentary seats despite the large number of votes they received.
In addition to Imtidad's gains, other independent parties and candidates won big. For example, the Kurdish New Generation movement won a total of 9 seats. while independent candidates won a further 37 seats. These independent forces met in Najaf on 18 October to begin forming an opposition bloc within parliament, aiming for at least 25 seats giving them the quorum necessary to call in for parliamentary interrogations corrupt politicians and those accused of using violence against critical voices.
Both New Generation and Imtidad have said that they will not participate in a Muhasasa government where public resources are divided up by winning parties and used to serve their own political interests. Should the bloc materialise, its importance cannot be overstated: It would represent a cross-sectarian Iraqi opposition movement beyond ethno-sectarian divides and serve the Iraqi people before the interests of the political elite.
Complimenting this approach are the parties and individuals who have boycotted elections. By ensuring that voter turnout plummeted to 34% - the lowest it has been since the US-led invasion – they have demonstrated the Muhasasa's lack of legitimacy, while they continue to call for radical change from outside the system. Some, like al-Bayat al-Watani, also plan to run in governorate council elections, challenging the spaces in which the worst acts of corruption take place within these forums.
Thus, what is emerging is a three-pronged attack on the political sectarian system on the national and provincial levels, both of which are complemented by the power of the street.
What’s next for the political opposition?
The success of Iraq's new political opposition will depend on three key factors.
The first is whether protest parties and independents can resist the temptation of becoming part of the establishment, allying with ethno-sectarian parties and participating in the division of state resources.
Secondly is whether they will be able to form a strong opposition in parliament and hold their own against political parties with decades of experience in politics and access to vast resources and arms.
Thirdly, their success will depend on whether they will be able to coordinate effectively amongst each other.
For now, it might be enough to say that the election results undoubtedly have been impacted by the ongoing protest movement. This small glimmer of hope suggests that the many lives lost campaigning for a better future for Iraq might not have been totally in vain.
Taif Alkhudary is a Research Officer at the LSE Middle East Centre.
Follow her on Twitter: @ALKTaif
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.