More than two weeks have passed since early parliamentary elections were held in Iraq but the losing political blocs are still refusing to recognize the preliminary results announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission, which in turn delays the announcement of the final results until after the appeals submitted in a number of constituencies have been considered. Consequently, an atmosphere of tension lingers about the possibility of a new crisis if the dispute over the results continues, despite Iraqi elections generally being viewed as fair regardless of the low turnout. Despite these difficulties, a discussion about the shape of the next Iraqi government has taken off.
Voter turnout in Iraqi parliamentary elections have witnessed a continuous decline since the first elections held after the 2003 US invasion. The large mobilization efforts that accompanied the recent elections — which culminated in Shi’i cleric Ali al-Sistani's call for female voters to participate – failed to yield tangible results. The official turnout was 41%, down from 44% in the 2018 elections, while that local monitoring organizations estimated the turnout to be as low as 38%. The chief of the European Union Election Observation Mission, Viola von Cramon, also noted a low turnout at the polling stations.
Iraqi turnout is similar to other countries undergoing democratic transitions whereby the first election cycle is met with public enthusiasm that soon subsides. The low turnout in the latest parliamentary elections have important political implications, not least that the most powerful social religious institution in Iraq - the Shi’i religious institution – has lost its ability to mobilize. It also indicates the success of the boycott calls made by the forces and organizations that emerged from the protest movement, starting in October 2019. Many parties involved in the movement had called for early parliamentary elections that would lead to a change in the ruling political class over the country, provided that the Elections and Parties Laws were ammended, while ensuring the independence of the Electoral Commission. These demands were adopted in the first paragraph of the ministerial program of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (2020), who succeeded Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi (2018-2019).
The matter drew the attention of the ruling Shi’i forces, who saw the elections as a way to contain the wave of protests that erupted in 2019. However, the protest movement, which had previously demanded early elections, called for a boycott because of state’s failure to protect prominent activists within the movement from continued targeting and assassination attempts by armed groups and militias. Despite calls for a boycott, the general impression is that the 2021 elections have been the fairest of all elections held since 2003. Announcing the results within 24 hours, as stipulated in the new election law, played a major role in reducing vote manipulation.
The election results indicated several contradicting trends. For example, the decline of the Shi’i factions close to Iran (represented by the Fatah Alliance, which won 17 seats), was matched by a noticeable rise for the list of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (State of Law Coalition), which gained 35 seats, a current also close to Iran. While candidates affiliated with the protest movement (Emtidad Movement) won 9 seats, and a significant number of its independent affiliates won seats, this was offset by the Sadrist bloc coming in first place, with 72 seats, given that it has become an opponent of the protest movement.
Another contradictory indicator is that with the decline of the forces supporting Iran, the Shi’i forces that are considered moderate and independent of Iranian affiliation have also significantly declined; The Alliance of Nation State Forces, a coalition that brings together the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the Victory Coalition led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, failed to secure more than 4 seats. The voting behaviour could thus be interpreted as a protest against the party system, as happened in France and in Tunisia.
However, several indicators distinguish the 2021 elections. Although these elections reproduced the existing political class, with different and disparate results, they opened the door to the possibility of the emergence of alternative political options, if the conditions for holding fair elections are met. On the other hand, the contradictory indicators noted above reflect a state of societal division, especially within the Shi’i community. While the Sadrist bloc obtained 72 seats, the other Shi’i parties loyal to Iran (the State of Law Coalition and Al-Fatah) won more than 50 seats. The sharp division between Shi’i political organizations revolves around the running of the government and the state, and the nature of their relationship with Iran. It is not a new division, but one that was reinforced by the 2019 protests revealed the failure and structural crises of the ruling system.
In the face of this division, the election results reflect a radical shift in the position of the Sadrist movement and its leader Muqtada al-Sadr on the issue of state and governance. What began as a militia (the Mahdi Army) that arose in the conditions of the American occupation, turned into a political organization more closely resembling a party, and then became part of the state and the system of governance. Now there is a very real possibility that the movement will take over the administration of government given the recent election results. The large mobilization organized by the movement for the participation of its followers in the elections reveals this desire. This is because the movement not only sought to win the elections, but also to carve a big vote difference between itself and its closest Shi’i rivals, qualifying it to nominate a prime minister either the Mahdi Army within its membership or from a pool of independent affiliates restricted by the trends of the movement, instead of resorting to coalition prime minister, as was the case in 2018 when seat tallies were close between the Sadrist bloc and its Shi’i competitiors. It seems that the 2019 protests have accelerated the crystallization of this vision for the movement. Muqtada al-Sadr, who got involved in the protest movement in 2015 and ended up launching a reform initiative in 2016 and allying with civilian forces in the 2018 elections, has despaired of the possibility of reform through existing coalition formulas. This reinforced his rivalry with forces from the 2019 protest movement, many of whom refused to acknowledge al-Sadr's “fatherhood” of the protest movement and reform initiatives. From here, crystallized the vision for him to assume power and become responsible for reforming the system from within.
Sunni and Kurdish Results
The Sunni and Kurdish electoral patterns have also been affected by divisions. Although consociationalism theorists talk about a conflict between elites expressing ethnic identities, over the representation of this identity, that usually emerges after the establishment of the consociational system, the election build-up and results revealed — this time — several features, most notably the following:
- Some Kurdish and Sunni political forces have seen a decline against the remarkable emergence of new forces. The Kurdistani Coalition continued to decline due to a crisis that set in since the death of its founder, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in 2017, winning 16 seats. The Movement for Change, which was established by the late Kurdish politician Nawshirwan Mustafa in 2017, failed to obtain a seat, despite initial indications that it would be the rising future force in the Kurdish scene. A new political force, the New Generation Movement emerged, winning 9 seats. Unlike the Movement for Change, which was formed from within the traditional Kurdish political space, as a schism within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by the deputy head of the party, New Generation Movement is an external creation founded by the young Kurdish businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid.
- The main blocs that had dominated the post-2003 Sunni political scene have disappeared. These include the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Mosul politician Osama al-Nujaifi, and the National Dialogue Front led by Saleh al-Mutlaq. Their failure to obtain a seat worked in the interest of the two main Sunni blocs that have emerged: the Progress Party and the Azem Alliance. The former is a new bloc, founded by Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi, who has taken advantage of the networks of interests he established when he was the governor of Anbar and Speaker of Parliament. In general, the Sunni landscape appears to be more volatile and less stable, than that of the Shia and Kurds. It is characterized by remarkable fluidity, as blocks appear and disappear, which can be explained by the modernity of the Sunni identity, in that it is a political identity that emerged in the atmosphere of sectarian division after 2003, while the Shi’i and Kurdish identities are more entrenched. The Kurdish and Sunni political scenes have witnessed the emergence and dominance of one political force at the expense of other forces. In the Kurdish sphere, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (led by the President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani) has outperformed its closest competitor; winning 33 seats, while its closest rival, gained just 16 seats. For Sunnis, the Progress Party won 37 in contrast to the 13 seats won by its closest rival (Azem).
The Role of the External Factor
Despite the political implications of the results, it is unlikely that they will alone determine the features of the next Iraqi government. The powerful and influential foreign powers in Iraq, especially Iran, will manipulate the results in line with the perception of their interests and influence in Iraq. Here, two things should be taken into account: the first is Iran's insistence on ensuring the unity of the Shi’i political body. Although the Shi’i divisions are old, Iran has been pressing in every election and using its influence to encourage Shi’i political forces and organizations participate in one list, believing its influence in Iraq to come from the unity of the Shi’i political body. Second, Iran — even if it is forced to accept the reality of the Shi’i division — will try to prevent Al-Sadr from being the single Shi’i ruler. The Sadrist movement is not considered a close ally, despite “good relations” between them. He has repeatedly taken steps that are inconsistent with its policies and orientations, especially in his relationship and openness to Arab countries, foremost Saudi Arabia, at the height of the Iranian conflict with them. From here, the formation of the government will depend on two things: Iranian pressure on Shi’i parties form a coalition government that includes everyone, and al-Sadr's ability to withstand this pressure and exclude his Shi’i opponents. Al-Sadr needs at least 96 seats to secure the confidence of the House of Representatives, leaving him obliged to build alliances, as, according his last speech, he wants to move away from the coalition government, and instead ally with some large winning blocs to form a "political majority" government, overturning the pattern of all post-2003 governments.
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