On Wednesday, 6 October 2021, the Political Studies Unit at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held a symposium titled “the Early Parliamentary Elections in Iraq 2021: Context, Competing Forces, and Prospects", with the participation of a group of researchers specialized in Iraqi affairs. Speakers, Harith Hassan, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center; Haider Saeed, Head of Research at the Arab Center and Editor-in-Chief of Siyasat Arabiya; Rahim al-Agili, a retired judge and lawyer and former head of the Federal Integrity Commission in Iraq from 2008–2011; Abdul-Jabbar Al-Saidi, Professor of Political Sociology and Political Systems at the College of Political Science at Al-Mustansiriya University; and Akeel Abbas, an independent researcher and former professor at the American University in Iraq, presented under the moderation of Marwan Kabalan, Director of the Political Studies Unit at the Arab Center. The interventions looked at the context and projected outcomes of the elections, as well as the various stances of Iraqi political forces.
Haider Saeed began the first session with a paper talking about the road to the early elections, which were announced after the resignation of the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi in November 2019. This followed a large-scale protest movement in Iraq, which many involved describe as a revolution, and the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister of Iraq in May 2020. In July 2020 he announced that early parliamentary elections would be held in 2021. These elections come in the context of conflict and divisions between the ruling Shi’i elite in Iraq since 2003, which crystallized under the premiership of Haider al-Abadi (2014-2018), as two groups formed. While one group remains close to and supported by Iran, the other seeks to limit the influence of Iran and its proxies. Saeed argued that al-Kadhimi is not uninvolved in this division and the conflict between the actors in the ruling system, and that the early elections that he called for, even if they appear from his ideas, are a major demand of the October revolution.
In the second intervention, Akeel Abbas presented his paper: "The Iraqi Elections: What Do They Mean? and What Distinguishes Them from Previous Elections?", arguing that the upcoming elections are the most important elections that Iraq has witnessed since 2003. They will decide the future of the political system and the possibility of reforming it from within following the October protests, which gave Iraqi society a degree of clarity regarding the flaws of the political system. Abbas added that these early elections demonstrate that Iraqis have options outside of the political system to continue protesting until the overthrow of the regime.
Rahim al-Agili, in his paper, "The Legal Frameworks for Iraq's Early Elections in 2021 and the Challenges They Face", emphasized that the main effect of the October uprising is that it has forced the political system to adopt a new electoral system, in accordance with the provisions of Parliament Elections Law No. 9 of 2020. Perhaps the most prominent of which are firstly that the votes in the new electoral system go to the candidate for whom the voter voted, and not their list and the surplus is not distributed to other candidates, as was the case in the previous law. Second, the adoption of the new law for individual candidacy within the electoral district, either on a single list or on an open list, unlike the previous law that adopted candidacy on an open list. Third, the new law does away with proportional representation and the Sainte-Laguë method, instead adopting an electoral system in which the winner is determined by the highest number of votes was determined. Fourth, the new law adopts a different division of electoral districts than in previous elections since 2003. Fifth, the right to run for elections is no longer limited to holders of university degrees. Sixth, the new law prevents the elected deputy from moving from the parliamentary bloc in which he was nominated, to another bloc, except after the formation of the government.
Abdul-Jabbar Al-Saidi, in his paper, “A Reading of the Map of the Political Forces Participating in the Iraqi Elections,” focused on the Shi’i entities participating in the elections, namely the Al-Fateh Alliance, which consists of a group of armed groups and militias such as the Badr Organization, the Sadiqoun Movement, the Supreme Islamic Council, the Islamic Labour Organization, Harakat al-Jihad wa al-Bina and the Master of Martyrs Battalions. These organisations and the Sadrist bloc headed by Muqtada al-Sadr are at ease with these elections. The researcher believes that even if this bloc feels comfortable given the blind obedience of its voters, it is concerned about the potentially low participation of the Sadrists, as happened in the 2018 elections, and the transfer of a major part of its supporters to the October forces, and about external interference.
The symposium concluded with a paper presented by Harith Hassan titled “Shi’i forces' policies and strategies towards the Iraqi elections,” in which he stressed that these elections have shifted their function from responding to the demands of the October protest movement to an attempt to renew the legitimacy of the existing political system. The decision to hold the elections came as a response from the main Shiite forces to the challenge posed by the October protest movement because this movement was geographically concentrated in areas with a Shi’i majority, and expressed a societal political crisis in those areas. The researcher adds that the protest movement lost its momentum for several reasons, such as repression, assassinations, kidnappings, temptations for some of its parties, revolutionary fatigue, and the restrictions in place to tackle the outbreak of Covid-19. All of this motivated the Shi’i political forces to readjust to the new reality to control it. The Sadrist movement is running an unprecedented electoral campaign. The movement, which is running in the elections for the first time explicitly under "the Sadrist Movement" banner, has moved from its 2003 election scepticism to dependence on elections to establish and control its presence in the structures of power.
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