Iraq after the parliamentary elections: more of the same?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Iraqis have gone to the polls to elect their representatives amidst concerns about worsening economic conditions and social unrest. The decision to hold the elections months earlier than scheduled reflects the government’s concern that it lacked the legitimacy to address the demands of the thousands of its citizens who since 2019 have taken to the streets to protest endemic corruption and foreign interference. The bloody demonstrations of the last two years, however, seem to have failed to turn out  the vote. With only 41% of the electorate casting ballots, some fear that apathy may signal growing skepticism about the importance of their participation in Iraq’s future.

The 2019 violence that precipitated the fall of the government at the time and ultimately led to a call for early elections seems to be long forgotten. However, Dalia Al-Aqidi, writing for Arab News, insists that the country, and the world, must not forget its lessons, lest the cycle of violence start anew: “This month marks the second anniversary of the Iraqi Tiananmen. While Iraqis cast their votes in Sunday’s early elections, which were called in response to the mass protests, the memory of Tahrir Square has been gradually erased from the global conscience, as if the thousands of Iraqi victims either did not exist or did not deserve to live…. The protests led by Iraq’s young people, who were seeking a brighter future, provoked the leaders of the pro-Iranian militias to unleash their terrorists and hunt the activists down, kidnapping, torturing and assassinating them to terrorize whoever dared to challenge their authority or criticize their leaders…. The Iraqi Tiananmen is an ongoing massacre that the world has decided to overlook and hold its peace forever.”

The violence and instability of the last two years is fresh in the mind of Sherko Habeb as well. In an op-ed for Al Ahram, Habeb notes that, given these dynamics, it is perhaps not surprising that many Iraqis approached the elections “with a skeptical eye, with the increasing promises of the parties, which makes us expect, as usual, a weak turnout. Its causes are not far from what was expressed by the widespread demonstrations in the past two years, not to mention the deteriorating economic and social conditions, the collapse of the services system and the weakness of facilities…. Talking about corruption and tyranny is no longer a luxury on people’s lips, but rather a tangible reality covered by bombings here and terrorist operations there, and between them sectarian strife, or political relations between Baghdad and Erbil, despite the ease of solving that old equation.”

Early official reports have the party of Shiite nationalist firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr leading the rest by a considerable margin. However, as this Tehran Times commentary points out, Sadr is unlikely to try to go it alone. Instead, he may opt for the veneer of a coalition government to avoid coming under direct scrutiny, especially since “Iraq’s political system requires any majority faction to cooperate with other groups to form a government. Sadr will likely be willing to cooperate with other factions to get his nominated prime minister approved by the parliament. This cooperation is of vital importance to the Sadrist Movement, given the fact that the movement won an election with a record low turnout of 41 percent. Sadr himself proved skilled at political maneuvers. He used to be the kingmaker without exposing himself to public wrath. The nationalist cleric understands that he needs other factions to shield himself from public anger arising from possible inadequacies. This paves the way for another consensual government in Iraq that would cater to the needs of all political groups, with Sadr leading from behind and having the final say on all state matters.”

Early election results have also delivered what may turn out to be an important step forward for women’s public participation in Iraq’s future. The Saudi Gazette reports that at least “97 women won seats in the upcoming parliament. According to the Iraqi constitution, women are guaranteed no less than 25 percent of the 329 seats in parliament to ensure women’s representation in all decision-making bodies. ‘The success of women in reaching the new parliament is a natural result of the efforts of those women who showed courage and determination to participate actively, and their experience today is a victory for Iraqi women and a source of pride for all’, Yusra Mohsin, head of the Empowering Women Office at the General Secretariat for the Council of Ministers, said in a statement. According to an analysis of the preliminary results, there are 14 seats more than the set quota (83 seats) for women, including winners for minorities.”

However, many remain skeptical about Iraq’s prospects for meaningful change.  Mina Al-Oraibi, the editor-in-chief of The National, argues that the country remains in dire need of significant political, economic, and social reforms, none of which is likely to take place, even after the latest parliamentary elections: “Sixteen years have passed since Iraq held its first elections after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. That vote in 2005 had a high 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.”

That pessimism can only deepen following reports of low voter turnout, a worrying sign of voter apathy. The Gulf News editorial suggests that the responsibility for the 41% turnout—a relatively low number compared to previous years—lies with the “political establishment” and its inability to address citizens’ concerns: “Iraqis have spoken — by not turning up in large numbers to vote. Sunday’s general election saw a record low turnout of only 41 per cent. In the 2018 elections, it was 44 per cent — a record low at that time. But who can blame the people for their apathy? Their message is clear: We do not have faith in the political establishment and in the way power is distributed in Iraq. The entrenched political factions in Iraq, many with their own well-armed, Iran-backed militias, have too much power in the country’s existing structure. They are highly likely to return to emerge on top…. Whoever emerges as victor in the end, most Iraqis clearly do not believe it will lead to tangible changes in their daily lives.”

Rudaw’s Layal Shakir reports that the president of Iraq’s Kurdish Region characterized the low voter turnout as a lesson and an opportunity for politicians to begin paying attention to the voters’ concerns, adding, “Iraqi and Kurdish politicians must do better when it comes to serving the people after record-low turnout in the parliamentary election. The low turnout ‘should be a lesson for all of us in the government and the political parties in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region’, Nechirvan Barzani said in a statement. It should ‘encourage us for serious reassessments and reestablishment of trust’…. The low turnout delivers a message that Iraqis expect better livelihoods and public services, according to Barzani. ‘It is time now to work together and form a patriotic federal government which mirrors the will and expectations of the citizens,’ the president said.”

Finally, Ghassan Charbel, the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, sees the parliamentary elections as an important step forward for the Iraqi voters. According to Charbel, despite the uncertainties surrounding the region and Iraq, Iraqis are still free to choose their own future through the ballot box: “The most dangerous thing about Sunday’s elections is that the Iraqis are now faced with their own responsibilities. No one can put the blame on Saddam Hussein’s era and his crimes. Nobody any longer believes that America is preventing the recovery of Iraq, or stopping voters from favoring the idea of the state and the institutions. Inaction cannot be justified by saying that Iran is running a puppet show from behind the curtains. Iran cannot force the Iraqis to choose a specific path, no matter the temptation and intimidation used by its militias.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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