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Iraq election: Little hope for change

October 9, 2021

Years of protests have resulted in some reforms. But, in the run-up to Iraq's parliamentary elections, optimism for genuine systemic political change remains slim, and voter turnout could hit an all-time low.

Election posters in Iraq
A new quota means around 30% of MPs are likely to be women Image: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Iraq is heading to the polls again, almost two years to the day after national protests had started raging in the country following the previous parliamentary elections.

Mostly young people had called for better economic conditions and infrastructure and an end to corruption and nepotism. The protests had turned bloody with 600 casualties and up to 30,000 injured by security forces and pro-Iranian militias.

Following the protesters' demands, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi resigned in November 2019. Current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took office in May 2020. He started his term with the promise for early elections and a reform of the electoral law.

Despite these promises, the protests continued until July 2021 as a loosely organized movement without a leader. "It's key to note that it was actually COVID that stopped the protests and not the brutal suppression that they were experiencing," Alice Gower, director of geopolitics and security at the London-based political adviser, Azure Strategy, told DW.

Protesters hold posters of protesters who have been killed in anti-government demonstrations
Protesters all wanted change, however the group was riven by differences and didn't have a leader Image: Hadi Mizban/AP Photo/picture alliance

New electoral law

The new electoral law was ratified by Iraqi President Barham Salih on November 5, 2020. Salih stressed the need for free, transparent, fair and early elections.

To further combat fraud, another major accusation in 2018 and 2019, a new federal court was installed, which is also set to approve next week's election results.

Furthermore, the United Nations mission in Iraq confirmed that a group of 130 international experts and around 600 supporting staff will be monitoring the upcoming elections.

According to the new law, a women's quota of 1 is set for each of the 83 constituencies, which replace the previous 18 districts.

Consequently, the around 3,200 registered candidates are being prioritized over the registered 300 parties.

"That limits the influence of the parties and strengthens the relationship between voters and the elected. But while this sounds like more democracy, there are some major snags," Gregor Jaecke, head of German Konrad Adenauer Foundation's Office for Syria and Iraq, told DW in a video call.

"One catch, for example, is that despite the new electoral law, many Iraqis continue to doubt that the vote is in line with democratic principles. I'm not even talking about electoral fraud or manipulation, but about voter turnout, which has declined steadily in recent years," he said.

While the election in 2005 had a voter turnout of almost 80%, the official turnout of the last election was somewhere between 25 and 40%. "This shows an increasing disillusionment and a loss of trust of people in the political system," Jaecke said.

Some regional analysts believe voter turnout this Sunday could be at an all-time low of around 20%.

Official numbers, however, are promising. According to the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), a week before the election, more than 17 out of 25 million Iraqis have registered for this election.

Calls for a boycott

Many young people and activists have decided to boycott the upcoming election as they don't believe that their voices will make a difference. The belief is that the election will be followed by a long period of negotiations which will eventually result in a political landscape similar to the current one.

"This electoral process is governed by corrupt and unfair political money," 26-year-old Zayed Al-Asad, a civil activist from the southern Dhi Qar Governorate, told DW.

Meanwhile, 31-year-old Diaa Kazem Hindi, from the central Karbala district, sees his candidacy as the answer to the pivotal phase the country is now in after the brutal events in October 2019. "The main reason is to be a voice for the Iraqi youth, because their percentage of the Iraqi people is about 70%, but their percentage in parliament is almost zero," the candidate for the "Emtidad Movement" told DW.

Passengers wearing face masks wait for flights at the Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad
Ahead of Sunday's polls, the international airport will be closed for one day to avoid fraud Image: Zhang Miao/Xinhua/picture alliance

It is safe to say that is anything but easy to become a candidate for the parliamentary elections. The minimum age of 28 years excludes many of the younger population. "Another catch is the enormous deposit of €5,900 ($6,850) that candidates have to pay to register. If they make it into parliament, they get a refund of half of the amount, if not, the money is gone," Jaecke told DW.

He believes that the high cost of participation naturally calls into question the fairness or equality of opportunity of the electoral process.

However, given the war-torn past of the country, it doesn't come as a surprise that the biggest obstacle for potential candidates is neither related to money or age. It is fear.

"Candidates are intimidated, kidnapped and there were also targeted assassinations of candidates, especially by pro-Iranian militias. And that is why large parts of the protest movement have called for a boycott of the election," Jaecke added.

Political prediction

Initially, the popular Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is not opposed to the pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, and who is regarded as kingmaker of the future prime minister, had called for a boycott. He later reversed that.

"We can expect to see him definitely present in the future government, he wields so much influence over key ministries and the population," Alice Gower said.

Al-Sadr is either going to support a candidate of his party, or current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Gower thinks al-Kadhimi's chances to stay in power after the election look good. "He has played a balancing act, namely, he needs to be able to maintain a US presence in Iraq in order to suppress the rise of the so-called Islamic State and to keep some kind of lid on the Iranian influence. But at the same time, because of the structure of the Iraqi system, he will also have to engage with the pro-Iranian militias."

The challenge for the winner of Sunday's election is to strike that balance in future.

"If a government is able to balance the US, balance Iran and develop a sense of Iraqi national identity and independence, then there's hope for the country. But it’s a big ask," Gowers said.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa