While the latest vote casting in Iraq reshuffled the balance of power in the Majlis al-Nuwab (council of representatives), the electoral battle failed to bring anything more than a new stalemate. Indeed, the hopes some Iraqis still had of obtaining concrete reforms in the near future were quickly dashed as most of the old establishment they opposed proved resilient and maintained a vast amount of seats in Parliament.
The new stalemate will prove hard to overcome due to the Iraqi legislature’s specificity where the political blocks sharing Iraq’s 329 parliamentary seats have to ensure a majority to form a government. This objective has always proven to be laborious and fragile. In a functional democracy, when electoral results are announced, victors are quickly recognized as such. Transition is necessarily swift, allowing for the political process to unfold and for a new governance to be implemented. However, in Iraq the battle for dominance is constantly renewed, under the umbrella of consensual democracy, also known as the Muhasasa.
Beyond the flawed consensual democracy, sheer force remains the rule as political actors do not hesitate to resort to it when they feel a sense of dispossession. Last October, Iraq’s crippling instability soon reemerged as a major block in the previous government (The Fatah alliance, composed of militia affiliated parties with close ties toTehran) opposed the results and braced for confrontation by staging violent protests in Iraq leading to the death of at least three civilians and the injury of hundreds. Later in November, the transitional Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi, suffered an unprecedented drone assassinatoin attempt in his own residence in Baghdad. Although the actors behind such an attack have not yet been caught, massive criticism afflicted the most radical branches of the “Fasa’il”, the pro-iranian militia parties, Kataeb Hezbollah (of which Abu Mahdi al Muhandis was the leader) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (whose leader, Qais al Khazali, had made direct threats toward PM al Kadhimi) in particular.
The elections’ message
The October 2021 elections’ results were surprising due to the decline of militias parties’ popularity. However, it also renewed their legitimacy since they won sixteen parliamentary seats. Political analyst Farouk Fayyad told The Red Line that the demand for early elections was “meant to break the wheel of the sectarian political system in Iraq, not to grant it legitimacy”.
The recent elections was one demand out of many others including uncovering the official investigations’ results on the mass killings of protesters, which PM Al Kadhimi’s government promised to unveil, a commitment if failed to fulfil. Still, the results, Mr. Fayyad added, showed that “militia parties were stripped out of their legitimacy due to their participation in the killing of innocent people.”.
With the start of the countdown to election day, a sharp division emerged among Iraqis between those in favor of participating in it, and those calling for an electoral boycott. Eventually, only 41% of legal voters took part in the elections, a sad reminder that Iraqis have little trust in the institutions to bring change and reform.
Torn between rejection and participation, the protester’s movement interacted with the elections in two ways, both of which intersect with the authority and its ruling parties. According to the political expert Ahmed Al-Mussawi, the first line adopted the boycott as an attempt to overthrow the system and to start reforming or changing it afterward. The second line chose to participate in the elections, with the aim of forcefully changing the equation of power from within. The final goal is to prepare for genuine reforms and change of the system.
“For the people, It seems that there is no light at the end of the tunnel and no exit looming from the bottleneck. Rather, there is a general acceptance of the endless back and forth process, which is a sign of the failure of an entire system”, political analyst Mohammed Abdul Redha shared with The Red Line while describing the October 2019 uprising as “nothing but an explosion due to the continuous institutional deterioration”.
In the recent years, government failure and genuine feeling of misrepresentation has pushed the youth in Baghdad and the south of Iraq to stage demonstrations, culminating with a massive popular uprising in October 2019 that resulted in the resignation of the former PM Adel Abdul Mahdi on November 29th 2019, a subsequent change in the electoral laws, and the scheduling of anticipated elections in late 2021. However, these changes were costly, since the security forces violence claimed the lives of no less than 490 dead and more than 7883 wounded, in addition to dozens of missing according to the United Nations Mission in Iraq.
Amid this turmoil, the first political meetings emanating from the protest movement occurred as a few representatives met in Najaf, following the heavy repression against protesters, october the 4th, 2019. According to Mr. Ahmed Al-Moussawi, a political affairs expert who participated in the meeting, this unprecedented civil society gathering resulted in a statement demanding, among other things, the resignation of the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi as well as the prosecution of the demonstrators killers. The forced resignation of the former prime minister, the same expert asserted, was the first fruit of the protests. The biggest fruit of the meeting, on the other hand, was the establishment of a new election law.
When Mr. Abdul Mahdi resigned, the ruling class realised that giving in to protesters’ demands meant relinquishing power and facing accountability, the political expert further detailed. Hence this outcome was prevented and the political process of transition was botched”. The result is what we can witness today: constant delays in the political process, as members of Parliament dragged their feet to form a new government, until the economic crisis proved to be too aggravated to continue deferring the will of the street . “The Politicians followed a policy of self preservation, manoeuvring and procrastination in addition to implementing repression in the shadows in order to gain time and to adapt the demands to serve their interests”, Mr. Al-Moussawi concluded. Despite the appointment of Mr Mustafa al Kadhimi as Prime minister in May 2020 (the most consensual figure), genuine political reforms have proven unachievable.
In order to gain time, political elites managed to push the date of the early elections by six months before their constitutional date. Despite all these political schemes, elections were confirmed to be held in October 2021. The second major achievement of the elite in its efforts to perpetuate their grip on the future government is their manipulation of the new election laws by dividing the regions in line with their influence.
Under a new voting law finalised in 2020, Iraq adopted a single nontransferable vote system (one vote for one candidate, multiple seats per constituency). The Sadrists were the most efficient in reshuffling the territories for their own advantage. They managed to do that because they had feet in both fields, the protests and the State. Upon the establishment of the new elections law, Sadrist statesmen began dividing the districts where their constituencies were most present. Sadr city, for example, was one district, but was later divided into two through the new electoral law.
In the end, the two lines of confrontation had a feeling they succeeded in their objectives, Mr. Al-Moussawi told The Red Line. “The boycotters were able to achieve a high boycott rate exceeding the boycott rate in the 2018 elections, which constituted a strong blow to the legitimacy and popularity of the political system. While on the other hand, the participants, voters and candidates, were able to achieve an unprecedented electoral victory”. This victory significantly reshuffled the balance of power in parliament, to the detriment mainly, of militia parties affiliated to Iran. This blow to some of the elite’s traditional political instruments could potentially pave the way for the building of a real political opposition more in line with the wishes of the Iraqi protesters and civil society.
Commenting on the surprising election results, journalist and civil activist Issam Allawi says: “Broad participation is the only solution to get out of the crisis and the political impasse that Iraq is witnessing”. Mr. Allawi believes that the key to a peaceful change will only come through elections.
Post election schemes
The election results were not agreed upon immediately by the rivals, rather, they went to the constitutional federal court to debate the results and its validity. Five changes occurred in the election results, following the submission of appeals by political entities and parties.
Since the new parliament’s establishment, negotiations between political actors have been intense. But achieving a majority of 165 MPs to form a government will remain, as always, a huge challenge. Political heavyweight are accustomed to this fait accompli and know how to benefit from it. Once in power, major parties usually place faithful allies in key positions of the government in order to serve their interest. The interior Ministry is known for traditionally the interests of the Badr organisation, in line with its securitarian approach to politics. The Sadrist movement, on its side, has put a lot of effort into controlling the ministries of Electricity and water, a way to redistribute its benefits to their supporters, in line with the image of “champion of the poor” Mr. al Sadr has veiled himself with for years.
Crippled by the absence of any executive, let alone judiciary powers, the Iraqi government is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and will have all the trouble in the world to address the priority issues of common Iraqis: securing food, roof and finding justice, all synonymous with dignity.
- He is often referred to as hostile to the hegemony of militia parties and even accused by some of having responsibilities in the assassination by the United States of former head of the Hashed al Shaabi Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, and head of Iran’s commander of external military operations in January 2020