The planned parliamentary elections are considered the most important and potentially most dangerous in Iraq since 2003. This is because these will be the first elections since anti-government protests took place. Yet again, Iraq is at a crossroads.
By Mustafa Habib
The anti-government protests left hundreds of dead and ultimately forced the resignation of the government. The new government, led by current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, announced that its first objective was to set a new date for federal elections.
Last Sunday, the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, known as IHEC, suggested postponing the elections from June this year to mid-October. IHEC officials say that this would guarantee they were ready and that the elections would be free, fair and fraud-free. It would also allow more candidates to compete.
The list of candidates will include, for the first time ever, political parties founded by some of those who led the anti-government protests.
Last Saturday, the leader of protests in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Alaa al-Rikabi, a former pharmacist, announced the formation of a political party called Imtidad, which roughly translated means “extension”. The name refers to the fact that the political party is an extension of the protest groups.
Somewhat ironically al-Rikabi was forced to make this announcement from outside of Nasiriyah, in the nearby city of Muthanna, because he has been threatened by armed groups there as have hundreds of other local protesters.
According to a source in the electoral commission, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, there parties are around a dozen small that have been formed by former or current demonstrators. In total, 200 political parties have been registered with IHEC to compete in the upcoming federal elections. Some of these are new parties and some are independent but many of the small parties are actually offshoots of larger, ruling parties, the official told Al Menassa.
“We have made great sacrifices and hundreds of us have been killed or injured, so it feels as though the revolutionary path we were on, to try and change the situation here, is no longer possible,” explains Murtada al-Khaikani, one of the protesters in Nasiriyah. “Because of how strong the existing political parties and their armed militias are, we have no choice but to compete in these elections despite our low chances of success.”
Al-Khaikani only hopes the upcoming elections will be fair. “If there is no fraud then we can already guess the result. The Iraqi people despise the political class,” he continues. “The strongest parties will only win a few seats and new parties, especially those that represent demonstrators, will win seats for sure. But nobody can guarantee there will be no fraud.”
So what chance do these new, smaller parties have in the face of large, wealthy political parties that are so embedded in the state? The latter possess enormous wealth and control armed factions as well.
The IHEC have said that voting will take place using a special biometric voting card. A few days ago, the electoral commission launched a national campaign to encourage Iraqi voters to collect their cards, which are apparently very hard to forge. The Iraqi government has also requested that the United Nations help to monitor the elections.
Iraq’s President Barham Salih held several meetings with the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament and representatives of IHEC and the UN to talk about ensuring that elections were fair.
It’s hard to know if they will be but a change in electoral law could be an opportunity to change the country’s political course.
The new electoral law, passed by the Iraqi parliament in December 2019, may favor demonstrators because it divides the country into 83 electoral districts instead of 18 provinces. So the contest will occur in smaller areas. It is highly likely that locals will elect people they know, rather than political leaders at a distance, many of whom do not have genuine representation at such a local level.
Local parties also have more of a chance of convincing locals to vote. At the last elections in 2018, only an estimated 44 percent of eligible voters took part and there were even campaigns to boycott the ballot.
Nonetheless the smaller parties still have a lot to fear from larger parties, who have amassed wealth over the time they have been in power, cemented their position inside bureaucracy and have armed offshoots that protect their interests. These larger parties have a lot to lose in a fair election that favors smaller newcomers.
“We founded our party a few weeks ago and it was registered with the electoral commission but we are afraid to organize any kind of ceremony because it could be dangerous,” the founder of a small political party in Baghdad said; they wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons. “We can’t even reveal the names of our candidates in case they are kidnapped or killed.”
And then finally, the protesters who have joined parties point out, what if they do win in the elections? Would the larger parties and established politicians even concede defeat? Who could force them to ?, they conclude.