It will take much more than an election to bring real change to Iraq

As the country prepares to go to the polls, hopes for a meaningful outcome are not high

Diplomats, officials, analysts and journalists interested in Iraq have spent months hypothesising about what Iraq’s general elections will mean for the country. Questions abound regarding who will form the next government, what the impact on militias on the ground will be and what influence Iran may have on it.

But given the dysfunction in the political system and the lack of inspirational candidates with clear manifestos or plans, there are no real discussions on how the elections will improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. With entrenched corruption (Iraq ranks 160th in Transparency International's ranking on corruption) and endemic governance problems, the elections themselves seem less relevant. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections and which political blocs emerge stronger or weaker will count for the country and its future.

One of the few virtues of Iraq’s political process is that the outcome is genuinely unknown and not pre-determined. And as election day on Sunday approaches, the hypotheses increase, but much will depend on how the voting plays out.

Certain matters, however, are clear in advance. First, voter turnout is expected to be low. It is unlikely to more than 40 per cent of the country's 24 million registered voters. Close to a million of these are first-time voters, and given the role of young people in protests since 2019, they are unlikely to vote for the traditional ruling parties. It is unclear how many of them will turn out, but spot polling and the general mood suggest that figures will be on the low side. The general sentiment is that a vote in the elections is a vote endorsing a broken political system that for 18 years has not served the people of Iraq well.

Activists in the national protests that kicked off in October 2019 and led to the fall of Adil AbdulMahdi’s government had made a call for early elections one of their main demands. They also demanded steps to reform the political system – particularly the parliamentary system that breeds coalition governments formed on political party interests rather than governing platforms. While Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi called for the elections to be brought forward from their original date in May 2022 based on the demands of the protestors, he has not been able to convince them that the limited reforms made to the voting system will be enough to enable real change.

Supporters of the elections, particularly Iraqi politicians, the US and European powers, insist that this is the only viable system for a peaceful transfer of power in the country. They fear a low voter turnout will further discredit the political system in place, and entrench existing parties that have a small but vocal core group of supporters. In the last elections, held in 2018, turnout was only 35 per cent.

The UN has led the charge in trying to get Iraqis to vote. From roping in Iraqis celebrities to running social media campaigns to promising to monitor the elections, the UN is keen to show that it is able to play a constructive role in reforming Iraq’s political landscape.

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One of the few virtues of Iraq’s political process is that the outcome is genuinely unknown

On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK and US all issued a joint statement saying: “This early election is an opportunity for Iraqi voters to democratically determine their future”. There is not much evidence, however, that these elections will provide that opportunity.

Sixteen years have passed since Iraq held its first elections after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. That vote in 2005 had a turnout, including Iraqis who voted from abroad, but in every election since, turnout has only decreased.

A defining factor leading to disillusionment with the elections is that the governments formed after the ballots are counted have little to do with the names that won in the elections. Political parties form coalition governments based on an opaque system of closed-door deal making. The result is that even if the ministers and senior officials change, the political actors and parties behind the scenes don’t.

The parliamentary system in Iraq does not support proportional representation, nor does it allow for truly representative government. However, the most recent electoral law amendment means that Iraq now has a "single, non-transferable vote" system. The upside is that this "first-past-the-post" approach favours candidates rather than party lists. But the down side is that it adds to the fracturing of the political landscape. More candidates will appear and new names will rise as a consequence – yet, the main parties will still be able to steer the government to serve their interests, even if based on compromise.

Islamist political parties backed by Iran are competing among themselves, as are the Kurdish and Sunni-majority political parties. No political party has emerged as being clear of sectarian or ethnic party politics, but some independents are seeking to emerge as MPs representing constituencies detached from ethnic and sectarian categories. Be it Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr or former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, Shiite Islamist leaders are betting on having a greater number of votes than others in order to be king makers with the next government.

There are clear merits to voting. But what really matters is what comes after the elections. Efforts must be made by stakeholders, Iraqi or foreign, who seek a stable Iraq to insist on key deliverables. First, the next government must commit to serious constitutional reform that can help the country emerge from the dysfunction and corruption it suffers. Second, the next government must commit to implementing deals struck during the Al Kadhimi administration, rather than scupper them and waste more time, particularly when it comes to energy and electricity generation. Third, the next government must include experts in their fields, particularly when it comes to health, energy, interior and education, in order to begin tackling the country's many ills.

This is the second election to take place in Iraq since ISIS was defeated, and little has been done politically to address the failures that allowed for the horrors of ISIS to happen in the first place. Instead, corruption has allowed organised crime to thrive. Unaccountable militias are becoming more and more entrenched in the state, and some of them may actually enter parliament in full force after these elections. Countries and international institutions interested in pushing back against these trends need to support efforts to build the capacity of the Iraqi state, finally get on with reconstruction in key cities, especially Mosul, and apply pressure on curbing corruption.

In the coming weeks, the jockeying for positions and benefits will reach a peak and then a government will be formed. While there is much curiosity over who will form the government and fill the most prominent of ministerial posts, the question that matters is whether that government will be able to deliver basic services to Iraq’s citizens. For now, all indicators are that a similar political make-up will emerge, as political groupings attempt to solidify the gains they made over the past few years, even if new names and faces are rolled out in an attempt to feign change. That would further discredit elections and risk violent responses.

Published: October 7th 2021, 4:42 PM
Mina Al-Oraibi

Mina Al-Oraibi

Mina Al-Oraibi is the editor-in-chief of The National.