Iraqis Head to the Polls, Frustrated with Corruption and Ethno-Sectarian Appeals


During the height of the battle against ISIL in 2016, the chameleon-like, anti-American, and rabble-rousing cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as a leading proponent of the fight against endemic corruption in Iraq, calling on Iraqis to fight the “ISIL of Corruption” even as they fought the “ISIL of Terror.” An Iraqi political analyst at the time told one of us: “Some say Muqtada is not smart. Maybe he is not. But in this case, he really gets what ordinary Iraqis want.”

In the 2000s, Sadr led a violent Shia-centric militia movement that fought both American soldiers and Iraqi security forces. Today, he leads one of the coalitions (Marching Forward) running in Saturday’s parliamentary election, a group that includes communists, secularists, Sh’’a partisans, Sunnis, and reform activists. He has renounced sectarianism and attacked Iraq’s corrupt “partyocracy.” The other coalitions and politicians competing in the election have followed suit, disavowing sectarian appeals, broadening their support base, and promising reform.

Will today’s election, the fourth since the 2003 U.S. invasion, finally be the one in which Iraq’s post-Saddam, sectarian-aligned state begins to crumble? Or is the non-sectarian, pro-reform rhetoric of the parties simply disguising deeply entrenched sectarian interests that will endure in the coming years?

With Iraq’s triumph over ISIL in 2017, Iraqis head to the polls with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency. Voters are likely to redefine their country’s politics by casting ballots for a broad range of divided party lists that have not coalesced exclusively along ethno-sectarian lines. Our conversations with Iraqis over the past two years have highlighted a growing political awareness and activism among both youth and older Iraqis. Many of them want these elections to result in strong, centralized rule and good governance, putting a decisive end to years of violence, corruption, and poor services.

On one hand, Iraqis continue to deeply distrust political parties, politicians, and state institutions more generally, which explains some voter apathy and skepticism. On the other hand, there is an anticipation not seen in previous elections: In one poll, over 70 percent of eligible voters indicated that they plan to turn out, though in another poll the figures are a lower. It’s true that many of the figures and parties present since the first post-Saddam elections in 2005 still play a leading role. But the victory over ISIL and the anti-corruption protest movement that took shape in 2015 and 2016 has awakened a new political consciousness among ordinary Iraqis and forced the established parties to go beyond narrow sectarian appeals. Support for the Iraqi military is at an all-time high (much higher than for religious authorities or other state institutions), indicating a renewed sense of national pride. Iraqis have been increasingly suspicious of Iranian meddling (indeed, of any foreign involvement), and younger voters who do not remember Saddam’s rule are less likely to be moved by the anti-Baathist appeals of the powerful Shi’a parties and politicians such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Assumptions about ethno-sectarian identity and power are being challenged by voters tired of sectarian quotas (muhasasa). In the Iraqi context, muhasasa refers to the informal system by which Iraq’s leading parties have divided ministries and other state institutions among themselves. One of us, who recently spent a year in Iraq, heard from Iraqis from all of walks of life who spoke continually and bitterly about this despised practice. Muhasasa values membership in a particular group over merit, leads to the installation of incompetent and corrupt elites, and incentivizes political parties to organize and mobilize around ethnic and sectarian identity. As a result of muhasasa and the party-list electoral system, over the years sectarianism became the most reliable platform on which to contest elections. Many Iraqis came to see sectarianism as something the ruling political parties created to maintain their privileges and power, and then reinforced by deploying their affiliated armed groups.

While ethno-sectarian divisions will not disappear overnight, Iraqis hope a political realignment that disrupts ethno-sectarian divisions may advance the process of reconciliation, especially since a majority of Iraqis hold political parties and politicians responsible for fomenting these divisions in the first place.

Post-sectarian Iraq begins in the Shi’a political bloc, where longstanding divisions have crystallized in advance of the election. The Iraqis we have spoken to have increasingly rejected the grip that religious Shi’a parties and electoral blocs have held over the Iraqi polity since 2003. Indeed, they see the dominant Shi’a electoral blocs as legendarily corrupt, disinterested in improving people’s daily lives , and unwilling to address the issues that concern Iraqis the most.

While many of the traditional Shi’a political actors are still dominant, Shia political groups failed to form a united list for the 2018 parliamentary elections. Instead, five groupings have emerged. Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is leading a list called Nasr (Victory), seeking to capitalize on his successful campaign against the Islamic State. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was once in the same religious Shia party as Abadi, is now running at the head of the Dawlat al-Qanun (State of Law) coalition. Fatah (Conquest) is led by Hadi al-Amiri, an Iran-linked former militia commander who has more recently courted the United States. Amiri heads a list of candidates and parties associated with armed groups that fought under the Popular Mobilization Force umbrella during the anti-ISIL campaign. A fourth coalition, Hikma (Wisdom), is led by Amar al-Hakim, who appeals to younger, less religious voters.

The fifth and final group is Sadr’s al-Sairoon (Marching Forward), an improbable union of the populist and religious Sadrists and the secular Iraqi Communist Party, two groups that played a leading role in the 2015-2016 pro-reform protest movement. Hardly a democratic figure, Sadr nonetheless successfully placed himself in the vanguard of that movement, co-opting some of the civil society groups that originally organized the protests. Sadr has also declared that he opposes Iranian influence, visited Saudi Arabia, and called for the dismantling of the Popular Mobilization Force.

On one hand, the fissures within the Shia bloc suggest that it will be difficult to form a unified ruling Shia coalition, leading to deadlock. On the other, the fragmentation incentivizes the formation of cross-ethnic and sectarian coalitions. As Douglas Ollivant predicted in War on the Rocks, no single list is likely to get a majority of seats. For example, even if Abadi’s “Victory” list wins, he will likely have to work with Kurdish and Sunni parties—among whom he is popular—to achieve the numbers requires to form a government. However, as Harith Hasan al-Qarawi observes, cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian agreements that emerge from the election will not necessarily solve the problem of doling out ministries and positions and their accompanying opportunities for patronage.

Abadi’s Victory coalition, like Sadr’s, is committed to ending the muhasasa system. An Abadi-led government, al-Qarawi argues, would likely be “centrist, reformist and more cohesive” than one led by Maliki or another Sh’’a prime minister. However, while Abadi is popular, he is also remembered for his wage cuts in the public sector  during a period of declining oil prices. Further, he was unable to muster the political will to install the “technocratic” government demanded by protestors in 2015-2016, and is a product of the same political cliques that have led Iraq down the path of state weakness and poor governance since the American invasion of 2003.

Meanwhile, in parts of Iraq only recently liberated from ISIL, the election campaign, though widely conspicuous thanks to campaign posters, is met with somewhat less enthusiasm. In the aftermath of ISIL’s rapid expansion and subsequent crushing defeat, Abadi’s list has made significant inroads into the war-ravaged Sunni community, many of whom remain displaced and unable to return to their homes. Critically, Abadi rejected a brief sectarian alliance with Haider al-Amiri, and rather than embracing the Popular Mobilization Forces, appealed to displaced Sunni voters in particular. However, Abadi’s personal popularity may not translate into high voter turnout among all Sunnis, many of whom share a lack of faith in politics and politicians with their Shi’a brethren.

In the north, Kurdish parties have descended into infighting and recrimination in the aftermath of the region’s disastrous independence referendum in the fall of 2017. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two largest Kurdish parties in the Iraqi parliament, are engaged in a bitter campaign with accusations of “treachery” and “treason” being leveled. Moreover, both groups are widely seen as having presided over corrupt administrations and are challenged by parties such as the Gorran (Change) Movement. Divided among themselves, Kurdish factions, too, need to go beyond narrow ethnic appeals to succeed.

What Iraqis — Shia, Sunnis, Kurds, and other members of the country’s diverse mosaic — want is clear and captured in numerous surveys. Years of dysfunction and violence have made Iraqis tired of political parties and politicians who seek to capture the state and divide its spoils among themselves while cynically using ethno-sectarian appeals as cover for self-enrichment. Iraqis want security, jobs, and functioning services, especially clean water and electricity. And they want an end to corruption, and real accountability delivered by an effective judicial system. Ironically, it took an existential fight against a terrorist group of previously unthinkable cruelty to help Iraqis realize that they share the same concerns. This, along with generational change, has made an Iraqi national identity popular again. In order to effectively respond to the aspirations of the Iraqi electorate, the parties will have to do what they promised during the campaign and finally reach across the ethno-sectarian aisle.


Mieczysław P. Boduszyński is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Pomona College in California. He previously served as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. His last assignment was as Political Counselor at the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah, Iraq.

Christopher K. Lamont is Associate Professor of International Relations at Tokyo International University. He has twice carried out fieldwork in Iraq over the past two years.