Shi’ite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is emerging as a kingmaker in the bitter contest to form a new governing coalition and select a new Prime Minister. Photo Credit: NYT.
“No to America, and no to Iran. Iraq is for Iraqis” – So an unnamed protestor told a CNN reporter in January 2020, just one of hundreds of thousands of protestors to march through Baghdad in protests which would last over eighteen months from October 2019 well into the Summer of 2021.[i] Whether or not Iraq’s upcoming Parliament can meet the challenges of increasing unrest, foreign influence, sectarian violence, the continuing pandemic, and a young population facing widespread unemployment will have grave consequences for the future of Iraqi democracy.[ii]
Under pressure from demonstrators, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel the 2,500 US troops from the country. Though the Trump administration refused this order at the time, a deal with the Biden administration promises to end a US combat role by the end of 2021.[iii] Meanwhile, Iran-backed militia groups, including in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), brutally cracked down on the protests, attacking pro-democracy demonstrators and military bases housing US troops and Iraqi security forces. Underscoring these protests is the Iraqi economy: youth unemployment stands at 25% while perceptions of corruption have risen dramatically, reflecting widespread disillusionment with the political classes which have governed Iraq since the ratification of the US-backed constitution in 2005.[iv] Contrary to hopes that establishment of democracy would result in increasing trust in government, Iraq has seen a steady decline in public trust since 2005.[v]
All 329 seats in Iraq’s unicameral legislature – The Council of Representatives – were up for election on October 10th 2021.[vi] It will select both Iraq’s President, a mostly ceremonial role, by a two-thirds majority vote; and its Prime Minister and governing cabinet by a simple majority. This election also saw reforms removing Iraq’s proportional voting system and its first vote contested under a first-past-the-post system.
What do the results show?
The most significant implication of these results is the seat change of two of the Parliament’s largest factions. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist coalition, a Shi’ite movement which fought against the US occupation of Iraq as well as ISIS, saw its seat number increase from 54 to 73, cementing its position as the largest coalition.[vii] The Iran-aligned Fateh alliance, which represents the PMF, saw its number of seats collapse from 48 to just 17. Former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki saw his State of Law coalition’s seats increase from 25 to 34; the Kurdistan Democratic Party increased from 25 to 33.
Perhaps most optimistic from a reformist point of view is the Former parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al Halbousi’s Progress Party Coalition.[viii] Newly formed in 2019, it garnered 37 seats. The Progress Party’s success represents the first time in years that Iraq’s Sunni minority has been able to cobble together a semblance of unity in its political activity, signalling that it could begin to wield its influence more meaningfully in the face of national politics riddled with sectarian factionalism. Independent candidates with heterogeneous affiliations and local constituencies also made a strong showing, with 40 seats, making the prediction of a governing coalition even more difficult. Reflecting popular disillusionment, turnout barely topped 40% of the 25 million registered voters.[ix]
What kind of coalition can we expect?
Iraq’s coalition-forming process has been both protracted and unstable in recent years. It has become increasingly fractured as the elite consensus of the US-installed constitution waned and popular discontent with the government’s inability to provide services increased.[x] Former Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi was not sworn in until five months after the 2018 election, and his coalition collapsed in 2020, ushering in the temporary caretaker government of al-Kadhimi.[xi]
The outcome of the coalition process will become apparent in due course, but so far there is little to suggest an upending of the dissatisfying status quo. Prime Minister Kadhimi, the former head of the Iraqi intelligence services who was installed as a caretaker Prime Minister, may well be looking at a second term. Without a party affiliation, he does not face the same extent of sectarian opposition as many of his predecessors, potentially lending him a statesman-like reputation. One thing is clear, however: his continued premiership, indeed the premiership of any would-be Prime Minister, will require the blessing of Shi’ite cleric-turned political maverick Muqtada al-Sadr, pictured at the head of this article giving his victory speech.[xii]
Al-Sadr staked his campaign on the elimination of foreign influence and the cleaning up of corruption. To fulfil at least one of these promises, he might seek to fully eject US troops by the end of 2021, going further than the current agreement made merely to end their combat role. Since the end of his role as anti-US militia leader and turn towards establishment politics, however, he too has been tarred with the same brush of corruption and mismanagement as most of Iraq’s political parties, the very same reputation leading to the protest movement which toppled the country’s previous government. It appears, despite popular outrage and disillusionment, the entrenchment of tribal and sectarian loyalties will continue the institutional status quo.
The Politicization of Iraq’s Protest Movement
Patience will be required beyond this election if one hopes that Iraq’s anti-sectarian, anti-corruption protest movement will burgeon into a legitimate and organized political force. Nissan Abdel-Redha al-Zayer, a school-teacher in the Southern Dhi Qar governorate, won her election to the Iraqi Parliament.[xiii] She stood as part of the recently-formed Tishreen movement, whose name derives from the October 2019 protests opposing corruption and sectarianism. They won nine seats in the Parliament overall, reflecting their supporters’ concentration in Southern Iraq, where the protests – and their violent crackdown – were mostly focused.[xiv] Disillusioned by an ineffective central government, protestors were also those most likely to eschew voting in this election. It is therefore possible that in future elections, given more stability and increased publicity, Tishreen voters are likely to turn out in greater numbers reflecting their popular support in increased success at the ballot box.
The Role of Electoral Reform
The recent overhaul of Iraq’s electoral system undermines the prospects of more nationalistic and independent Iraqi politics. 2021 marks the first election contested under Iraq’s single non-transferable vote system.[xv] This first-past-the-post system replaces Iraq’s complex proportional system used previously, with the aim of increasing transparency, as well as decreasing the power of parties and factions in installing preferred candidates with no link or personal accountability to their constituents.
Analysts credit much of the Sadrist gain, and Fateh’s loss, with their respective responses to this reform. The Sadrists employed savvy techniques such as location-based apps for district-level directions for supporters and dedicated staff for constituencies and data analytics to nominate the correct number of candidates in each multi-member district, minimizing the number of wasted votes.[xvi] So great was the effect of electoral reform and campaign adaptation that the Fateh Alliance actually received a total vote tally on par with the Sadrist coalition, while the former won 17 seats to the latter’s 73. This led Chatham House analyst Dr. Renad Mansour to conclude that “while Fateh have lost some political capital, they still maintain powerful coercive capital and are likely to have a greater influence in government formation than their number of seats would suggest.”[xvii] In other words, loss in seats does not entail any loss of the PMF’s fighting force, or Iran’s determination to maintain a grip on the country’s politics.
‘Iraq for Iraqis’
The outcome of the 2021 parliamentary elections shows moderate promise for reformists despite the overall reversion to the political status-quo. This round of coalition formation is unlikely to upend the entrenched political dynamics so detested by the majority of Iraq’s registered voters, who chose not to show up to the polls. Clearly, faith in Iraq’s political system will hinge upon the central government’s ability to throw off the three key challenges to its reputation: corruption, perceived interference by Iran, and perceived interference by the United States. The uprooting of corruption begins at the government-formation level: coalition-forming has traditionally included the appointment by parties of hundreds of key civil service posts;[xviii] electoral reform may go some way to addressing this, while the process in total will take years.
Parties promising to rid Iraq of foreign influence may have more near-term success, but any future Prime Minister will need to balance their desire to see a US troop exit with the need to stave off coming violence from the Fateh Alliance, which has decried the election results as false. Its leading figure, Hadi al-Amiri, declared in a foreboding statement: “We will not accept these fabricated results, whatever the cost.”[xix] The coming months between now and the end of US-combat troop presence will dictate whether the government can make good on its promise to end foreign military presence without widespread violence, and in doing so, make critical steps towards convincing Iraqis that their democracy truly gives them a degree of sovereignty over their domestic affairs.
[i] Tawfeeq, Mohammed. Hundreds of thousands protest US troop presence in Iraq. CNN. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/24/middleeast/iraq-protests-us-troops-intl/index.html
[ii] Jiyad, Sajad. Protest Vote: Why Iraq’s next elections are unlikely to be game-changers. LSE Middle East Center. Retrieved 11/3/2021: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/110201/1/Protest_vote_iraq_elections_paper_48.pdf
[iii] Holland, Steve. Biden, Kadhimi seal agreement to end U.S. combat mission in Iraq. Reuters. Retrieved 11/2/2021: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/biden-kadhimi-seal-agreement-ending-us-combat-mission-iraq-2021-07-26/
[iv] World Bank Data: Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24). World Bank. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS?locations=IQ; Corruption perception index. Trading Economics. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://tradingeconomics.com/iraq/corrption-index
[v] Alaaldin, Ranj. BDC Snapshots: The Iraqi state’s crisis of legitimacy. Brookings Opinions. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/bdc-snapshots-the-iraqi-states-crisis-of-legitimacy/
[vi] Chughtai, Alia. Infographics: Iraqi 2021 Elections. Aljazeera. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/10/infographic-all-you-need-to-know-about-iraqs-elections
[vii] Mansour, Renad & Stewart-Jolley, Victoria. Explaining Iraq’s election results. Chatham House. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/10/explaining-iraqs-election-results
[viii] Chughtai, Alia. Infographics: Iraqi 2021 Elections. Aljazeera. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/10/infographic-all-you-need-to-know-about-iraqs-elections
[ix] FT Editorial Board. Sadr’s victory will not ease Iraq’s malaise. Financial Times. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.ft.com/content/8b5432f9-413b-4119-b021-c65ca7877b1f
[x] Dodge, Toby. “The failure of peacebuilding in Iraq: the role of consociationalism and political settlements.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 15, no. 4 (2021): 459-475. P13
[xi] Rudaw News. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi sworn in with 14 ministers, so far. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/24102018
[xii] Cornish, Chloe. Moqtada al-Sadr: mercurial militia leader turned kingmaker. Financial Times. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.ft.com/content/98c8a27b-4dfc-40d8-ae4d-a859f9cf3250
[xiii] Al-Salhy, Suadad. Iraq elections 2021: Tishreen movement becomes a political force in south. Middle East Eye. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-elections-2021-how-tishreen-movement-became-political-force?__cf_chl_managed_tk__=pmd_rLt7upZvZPJl7eq0.fujPCGK8.sMr54lFvMzrMVYRUc-1635271972-0-gqNtZGzNA3ujcnBszQs9
[xiv] Congressional Research Service Reports: Iraq’s October 2021 Election. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IN/IN11769#:~:text=Election%20Framework%20and%20Results,seats%20reserved%20for%20minority%20groups.
[xv] Stewart-Jolley, Victoria. Iraq’s electoral system: Why successive reforms fail to bring change. Chatham House Research Papers. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/2021-10-05-Iraq%27s-electroral-system-stewart-jolley-pdf.pdf
[xvi] Mansour, Renad & Stewart-Jolley, Victoria. Explaining Iraq’s election results. Chatham House. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/10/explaining-iraqs-election-results
[xvii] Mansour, Renad & Stewart-Jolley, Victoria. Explaining Iraq’s election results. Chatham House. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/10/explaining-iraqs-election-results
[xviii] Dodge, Toby. “The failure of peacebuilding in Iraq: the role of consociationalism and political settlements.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 15, no. 4 (2021): 459-475. P11
[xix] Al-Jazeera. Pro-Iranian groups reject early Iraq election results as ‘scam’. Retrieved 11/3/2021: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/12/iraqi-pro-iranian-groups-reject-elections-a-scam