Apathy Versus 'Old' Parties: Iraqis Prepare For Elections

Published September 29th, 2021 - 12:08 GMT
Clashes near Bagdad's Tahrir Square
2019 - Clashes near Bagdad's Tahrir Square (AFP File Photo)

As Iraq prepares to hold its sixth parliamentary elections since 2005 – and under the guise of the US intervention that threw out Saddam Hussein and installed a new so-called political “democratic” system – different scenarios are conjuring up about Baghdad today and how it was in yesteryear.

Harking back to the 1970s and early 1980s and before its long-war with its arch-enemy and nemesis Iran, Iraq was a strong vibrant state, economy and society, represented by its strong currency, purchasing power, bounty and prosperity represented by a top-notch oil sector with lots of liquid surplus.

Today, this is no more after years of war, 1990s UN sanctions, more wars, American occupation and endless domestic conflict with, off course and for all its worth, representative democracy with representation along ethnic and religious lines.

However, today’s Iraq is nowhere near the Iraq of yesterday despite the despotism of its ex-ruler Saddam Hussein who was finally caught by the Americans, tried by an Iraqi court and mercilessly hanged. Today’s Iraq is characterized by the militarization of society through Shia groups and militias, high unemployment among its population and incessant power-cuts that can never be fixed. It’s a state and society that has long cracked at the seams and no longer able to get its house in order.

Politics – Iraqi style!

On paper Iraq seems to have developed into a vibrant democracy. It has a unicameral parliament through its House of Representatives with Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Take for example the coming elections on 10 October, 2021. It’s a blueprint of representation as 3,249 candidates stand for the elections nationwide with 951 women seeking to become deputies in the 329-seat parliament.

These candidates either run as independents or as members of the 167 parties registered in Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission. In this 2021 election these parties are further divided along 21 alliances including the Sadirist Bloc, the pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance, the State of Law Alliance led by ex-premier Nouri Al Malki, and the Alliance of National State Forces who served as Prime Minister between 2014 till 2018.

All these are Shiite parties but there are also Sunni-based parties as well as Kurdish parties and the so-called Tishreenis who are running independent candidates. This last element grew out of the protest movement that rocked Iraq in 2019 to demand jobs, a decent standard of living and an end to corruption. The Tishreenis want parliamentary deputies who would serve as counterweight to the above blocs and alliances that dominated Iraqi politics since 2005 when the first parliamentary election was held.

But can the Tishreenis win? Iraqi parliamentary politics exist on ethnic and sectarian lines with the different parties and alliances splitting the spoils between them. There developed of course, claimed “wide” parties such as the “Sadirists” led by Muqtada Al Sader who sought to build his movement as a “mass party” representing the man-in-the-street and fight for the underprivileged.

To prove their popularity, they received top 54 seats in the 2018 election followed by the Fatah Alliance with 48 seats. One of the Sunni alliance lead by Mohammad Al Halbousi, who despite getting "minority" seats was able to be elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives simply because of getting hitched with the Fatah Alliance lead by Hadi Al Amiri, the head of the Badr Brigade which is part of the Shia militia Al Hashad Al Shaabi.

These traditional parties fight elections and then chose an agreed on prime minister through horse-trading that may take as many months, which is actually the case in many world governments who rely on coalitions. Iraq’s last government in 2018 took five months to be formed under Adel Abdul Mahdi; and then it was put together, literally in an ad hoc exercise in laborious, time-consuming stages.  Which ministry goes to who and how many portfolios should an alliance or a party control? It’s patronage and clientelism that sometimes can be like shooting one in the foot.

Take for example the Sadirists who insisted they take the Health and Electricity portfolios in the post-2018 government. Last July an explosion in a Nassiriya Coronavirus hospital killed 44 people and injured 67. The Al Sadirists block sought to distance themselves from that by saying they won’t run in the coming elections and then changing their minds a month later.

Apathy

When the first parliamentary election was held in 2005, there was an 80% turnout; there was great happiness that the old regime had gone. But this soon petered out as problems extended. Today, the official turnout stands at 44 percent with some claiming as low as 30 percent as registered in the 2018 election. And turnout figures for this election is deemed to figure within this range.

Iraqis, young people are no longer interested in electoral polls because nothing seems to be changing. There is much “trust deficit” in deputies though some try and listen to the people and their constituents but it’s about real change rather than slogans and posters that are brandished in Baghdad and all over Iraq these days.

The “trust deficit” as well has been magnified and refocused by the Iraqi state and its security apparatuses as seen in beating demonstrators during the 2019 protests which actually resulted in the killing of 600 protestors and the injury of 10s of thousands according to reports.

This is the situation Iraq finds itself in, a big oil country, having the world’s second highest petroleum reserves but unable to provide a light bulb or electricity for much of Basra – the so-called oil city - that yearly suffers from scorching heat and was one of the protest conurbations in 2018.

Back to politics

Its suggested that the current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha Al Kadhimi will be back as premier after the elections. Although he is an independent and an outsider, he says he doesn’t want to run because he wants to keep the peace with everyone. He has good relations with the Sadiri bloc as well as others and he has amiable relations with the Shia religious authorities in the country who can vouch for him and elect him once again to the top job

So we just have to wait and see what will happen. To the cynics as well, it is argued nothing gets done in Iraq without the blessing of Iran and the United States. If this is true, it is they who will pressure their allies to accept whatever premier they want. It’s like pulling the strings but nobody would admit that on public despite the much private talk about who is really in control.


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