”Boycotts do not work.” That was the declaration of a well-respected analyst during an event I recently spoke at on the upcoming elections in Iraq. Her position was that those choosing to boycott elections as a means of changing a bad situation would fail in achieving that change. She argued that if voters do not turn out to vote, they could not expect better results. In theory, that is a valid argument. However, sometimes voter boycotts are the only way to take away the power of political parties who claim to represent the people, while not serving them.
A major debate is currently taking place in Iraq about elections – and the merits and drawbacks of boycotting them. Iraq’s parliamentary elections are slated to be held on October 10, which will lead to the formation of a new government. These are early elections, called by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi soon after he assumed office last summer. Mr Al Kadhimi was named prime minister due to the resignation of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, after protests demanding his departure swept through the country. The protests kicked off in October 2019 and reached their peak in the summer of 2020, before a string of assassinations and Covid-19 largely deflated them. The protesters had a number of demands, including early elections in order to eject corrupt officials and a political system that relies on sectarian and ethnic divisions, rather than public service or competent government. Activists and protesters also demanded electoral reforms, knowing full well that elections without electoral reform and weeding out corruption would only lead to a repetition of the failed politics of the past 18 years.
While some electoral reforms have been enacted, the main parliamentary system based on coalition building between the powerful parties is still very much intact. With concerns about the influence of militias on a number of political parties and the level of corruption in the system, there is little hope for renewal or change to come through the ballot box. Thus, calls from protesters, activists and ordinary Iraqis have been rising to boycott the elections. A number of small parties, such as the Communist Party, which have been aligned with the protesters, also announced withdrawing their candidates in the past few weeks and boycotting the elections. However, their actual impact on the elections will still be limited.
Then a major development occurred. On July 15, the Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc currently has the largest number of seats and was expected to repeat that success in the October vote, announced that he would boycott the elections. He also declared that he would not endorse any candidates or government. Mr Al Sadr wants to reposition himself as a voice of the protest movement, despite being deeply rooted in the current political system and benefiting from it. Furthermore, he may be sensing that after the catastrophic handling of Covid-19, his popularity is severely damaged. His affiliates have largely controlled Iraq’s Ministry of Health for years and have been complicit in both mismanagement and corruption eroding the country’s healthcare system.
Since Mr Al Sadr has raised the stakes by boycotting the elections, others have joined in, including former prime minister Ayad Allawi. It seems that the boycotters are becoming an electoral constituency in themselves, and political parties want to win favour with them. In 2018, the official count for voter participation was 44 per cent. However, with fraud and ballot box stuffing, the more accurate number is at 20 to 25 per cent. This is a sharp decline from 70 per cent in 2005 when optimism was high in Iraq and the peaceful transition of power through the ballot box was lauded. As elections after elections brought in incompetent governments, led by sectarian and corrupt considerations, disillusion set in.
When it comes to political change, few Iraqis today believe it can be attained through the ballot box. Political parties have a strong hold on the political system and have the resources and connections to ensure they can secure many of their interests. Independents stand little chance at getting the majority of votes and being able to form the government.
However, Mr Al Kadhimi is urging Iraqis to go to the polls, as the best means to vote out corrupt officials and vote in new MPs to Iraq’s 329 seats in parliament. Those supporting the elections, including the UN and the Independent High Electoral Commission, stress there is nothing pre-determined in this process. That is the appeal of elections. However, the issue in Iraq isn’t limited to the day of the vote. The fragmentation of the political system means governments are formed based on “compromise” that is largely akin to horse-trading. The sectarian divisions encouraged by the majority of political parties, as part of a policy of divide and conquer, leave little appeal to regular voters to have faith in the electoral system.
There is a general sense of disillusionment in Iraq, with a recent Chatham House survey showing that 83 per cent of Iraqis agree with the sentiments of the October 2019 protests. Boycotts are not a solution. But they are a form of protest, a form of expressing discontent and refusing to rubberstamp a corrupted system. The boycotters do not want to enable the system. While boycotts may not work to find a solution and do not represent an effective strategy, at least they ensure that the boycotters are not complicit in sustaining the problem.