Whatever the shape of the new alliances that emerge post-election, the new Iraqi government faces huge challenges

High unemployment, security, corruption and protection of the legal system remain chief concerns for the electorate, writes Saad Abdulrazzak Hussain

epa06725000 Members of the security forces stand in line to cast their votes during the special voting day for the Iraqi legislative election at a polling station in Baghdad, Iraq, 10 May 2018. About One million member of the Iraqi security forces in Iraq vote for the legislative election during a special voting day ahead of the public vote in the Iraqi legislative elections on 12 May 2018.  EPA/ALI ABBAS
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Saturday's parliamentary election in Iraq has been dubbed "the election after the election". What that means is that the coalitions that form afterwards will determine the shape of the new government. What distinguishes this election from previous ones is the absence of a strong party that could win power unanimously, as most of the bigger parties have smaller factions.

When we look at the election map, we find that the biggest list, namely the National Alliance which has governed Iraq since 2005, has split into a variety of competing entities. The first is the Victory Alliance led by prime minister Haider Al Abadi, who still stands a chance of forming the next government. The second is the State of Law coalition led by Nouri Al Maliki, the former prime minister, who has squandered his chances of gaining power. His primary objective is to get rid of Mr Al Abadi and to back any other Shia candidate to take the post of prime minister. The third coalition is the Conquest Alliance led by Hadi Al Ameri, who has declared his desire to become prime minister. This coalition includes various militias allied to Iran. There is also the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar Al Hakim, who split from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Moqtada Al Sadr, who is operating in a reformist framework through the On the Move Alliance, which includes the Communist Party and other secular lists.

Then there is the Al-Watani coalition led by Ayad Allawi, the deputy president, including some Sunni-led factions, and the Decision Coalition, which includes Osama Al Nujaifi, the deputy president. As for the Kurdish parties, it is still unknown what their plans are for the elections, especially after the massive splits that happened in their ranks following the failure of the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. Nobody knows if the two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, will back Mr Al Abadi or Mr Al Maliki. What's new on the Kurdish front is Barham Salih, who split from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and is now entering the elections as an independent.

Nearly 7,000 candidates in total are standing. Many experts have predicted that it will not be possible for any party to gain more than 60 seats out of 329, which amounts to 18 per cent of parliamentary seats. That means without the formation of new coalitions after the elections, it will not be possible to form a new government. Whatever the shape of the new alliances that emerge post-election, they will be massively affected by the policies of the United States and Iran towards the various coalitions – and the government that forms will face a huge task ahead.

When Saddam Hussein's regime fell, I was wrongly confident Iraq would immediately turn into a democracy, based on my knowledge of middle class culture in Iraq, which was very progressive and highly educated. Having lived in exile since 1981, I didn't factor into my calculations the huge impact of the 13 years of economic sanctions that were imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which resulted in an exodus of the middle classes and its replacement by rural migrants to the big cities, particularly Baghdad. This change planted the seeds of the chaos that later followed.

I returned to Iraq in 2003, when the first scenario for a suggested political process was following the Afghanistan model. First, we would build the proper institutions of a modern state, then after four or five years, we would hold the first election. The big change came with the arrival of Paul Bremer. He decided to dissolve the army and allowed desperate crowds to rob state ministries and properties. The Americans also faced pressure from Shia parties to have the election sooner rather than later.

The first election was held on January 31, 2005. There were many faults, many of which have not been resolved with subsequent elections.

One of the major faults was to proceed without carrying out a population census. Until now, we don’t know the precise number of the population in each voting area. The government avoids carrying out a census because it doesn’t want announce the real numbers of Shia, Sunni, Kurds and other factions, lest it affect the power balance between the various parties and lists. The last proper census was held in 1987.

The lack of a truly independent judiciary that operates outside the influence of government is another flaw. When Mr Al Maliki lost the election of 2010, he changed the constitution so that if an electoral list won, it wouldn't automatically take power but instead had to wait until after the election when electoral blocks were formed. It was through this perverse reading of the poorly written constitution that Mr Al Maliki held onto power. When challenged, he threatened to fire the head of the supreme court from his post. A temporary measure to prevent such abuses of power from happening again might be to elect the head of the Supreme Court for life in order to quell the temptation to threaten judges by the government of the day.

Iraq is considered a failed state. One of the features of a failed state is for militias to operate outside state control and the boundaries of the army, police and state security. The future government has to not only eliminate those non-state players but also to provide security for people who lack it. Many are forced to migrate from one area to another in search of better security.

Then there is the high unemployment rate in Iraq, particularly for young people. It is imperative to provide equality and job opportunities for all. A high proportion of university graduates are without work; many end up working as taxi drivers.

During the past 15 years, Iraqis have suffered from a lack of basic services. The new government must provide basic services such as health, education, drinking water and electricity. It has to improve poor neighbourhoods, which are overpopulated and provide the people living there with decent conditions.

Corruption in Iraq is endemic. It is vital for the new government to really tackle this issue by punishing those who profit from corruption, particularly those with high seats in government. The committee for anti-corruption has to be independent so that it can carry out its duty effectively.

The next government must also pay attention to the rights of women by ensuring they have equal rights and access to education.

One of the major new developments in the lead-up to the election has been the rise of voices calling for a boycott of the elections because they are seen as having failed to improve the lot of the average Iraqi over the past 15 years. Some lists, who are assured of getting their candidates elected, have called for the boycott to prevent other smaller lists from gaining votes. Yet it is easy to say: “What benefits have elections brought us?” without considering the long-term benefits. Disillusion with the democratic process is dangerous and can lay the ground for the emergence of a strongman and a return to dictatorship.

It will not be possible to create a functioning state without finding the right solutions to the country’s many problems. Otherwise further catastrophes will no doubt occur.

Saad Abdulrazzak Hussain is a researcher for the Iraq Studies institute in Beirut and a former member of parliament in Iraq