Iraqi the Vote: Can Elections Bring Reform in Baghdad?
Iraqis are less than three weeks away from a high-stakes general election. More than anything else, this election will be a referendum on the major anti-government Tishreen (October) protests that shook the country in 2019. The protests revealed a widespread frustration with the Iraqi political establishment, and a widespread desire for change. Unfortunately, while there are a number of plausible post-election scenarios, none of them are likely to deliver on this desire.
To the disappointment of those seeking reform, the elections are instead likely to produce yet another consensus government, formed by the same perennial class of ruling elites. The consensus model would ensure a collective distribution of spoils while precluding both genuine opposition and accountability. In this way, it will hamper the new government’s ability to implement reforms. And this, in turn, will send millions of disillusioned youth and disenfranchised citizens back onto the street to protest. Only this time they will be better organized, more fervent, and determined to go for broke. In short, unless enough party leaders show the foresight to break with the past and unite around an agenda for change, the prospect for instability in Iraq after the elections is real.
Two Visions, 21 Blocs, and Many Opportunities for Fraud
Barring unexpected developments — sectarian strife, regional conflict, or a spike in COVID-19 cases — Iraq will hold early elections in October 2021, nine months before the current parliament’s term officially expires the following July. These elections will see a contest between two rival visions: one that seeks to take on the status quo establishment and another that seeks to defend it. Indeed, key to understanding this particular election is the widespread public resentment against the status quo and the desire for political change. Whereas the post-2003 class of ruling elites is mostly united in their defense of the status quo, the Tishreen mass protests and the parties that emerged from them demonstrate the widespread desire to shake up the system. For Tishreenis and reformists, the real goal of the election is to get rid of the ruling elites.
But this might prove difficult. For one, there are serious threats to the integrity of the electoral process. The 2018 parliamentary elections saw claims of widespread electoral fraud. Now, the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi and the Independent High Electoral Commission are trying to avoid the “mistakes” of past elections by adopting biometric voting cards, requesting international observation missions, and deploying a sizable security force. But the status quo elites can still exploit the weakness of the state they control to defraud the system. Past elections have seen machine glitches, deliberate rigging, and destroyed ballot boxes. Already in September there was a foiled attempt by some political and parliamentary officials to undermine the elections using their connections inside the Independent High Electoral Commission.
Tishreen parties and allies are still expected to make inroads, but these will be limited for two reasons. First, emerging parties are not on an even playing field with establishment parties, which have access to significant political, financial, and electoral resources. Second, the voters associated with the protest movement are expected to largely stay at home on election day, displeased and frustrated with the entire system. The current electoral boycott campaign, supported by reform-minded parties like al-Bayt al-Watani, will only serve to cement the power of establishment parties, which have committed constituencies they call on every election. And if the Shiite religious authority, or Marjeah, does not encourage voters to go to the polls, this might also lower voter turnout.
The Independent High Electoral Commission has registered 167 parties to compete in the upcoming elections, although the most prominent of these will participate as part of 21 different pre-election alliances. Among the most important are: al-Kutlah al-Sadriyah or the Sadrist Bloc, led by Sayyed Muqtada al Sadr; Fatah or Conquest Alliance, led by Badr Brigade head Hadi al Ameri; Tahaluf Dawlat al-Qanoun or the State of Law Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki; Tahaluf Quwa al-Dawla or the Alliance of National State Forces, co-led by former Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Sayyed Ammar al Hakim; a number of parties affiliated with other politicians and businessmen, including those of Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and the Talabani family; and the Tishreenis, who are running candidates as independents and as part of smaller party lists.
The Sadrist Bloc, Fatah Alliance, and the Alliance of National State Forces, all establishment parties, are expected to win the most seats in the next parliament, and each will try to form a government. No single party is expected to gain more than 60 seats out of 329, meaning at least seven parties would need to come together to form a coalition government. As such, it will be difficult to form a new government fast enough to tackle the many challenges facing the country. In 2018, it took elites nearly five months to agree on a partial cabinet of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The inevitable post-election political maneuvering could play out in a number of different ways. A few scenarios seem more likely than others, but all are indicative of the troubles ahead. No matter which party or alliance is in the driver’s seat, it would have to contend with challenges including no-confidence votes in parliament, protests, and even armed attacks.
A Coalition Government
It is possible that one of the main electoral alliances could succeed in cobbling together a coalition, but it would be difficult for all the contenders.
The Sadrist Bloc may well gain the most seats. Sadrist candidates do not have to be individually qualified or popular, since the base votes for the Sadrist movement, which is strong especially in poor and urban Shiite areas in Karbala, Muthanna, Nasiriya, Wasit, and Maysan provinces. But even if the Sadrists made a strong showing, they would have to overcome an implicit veto from the Fatah Alliance and its allies. They see Sadr as a competitor, one who is capable, hard to predict, and willing to threaten their interests and even existence. Furthermore, since the Tishreen protest, the Sadrists have lost several of their allies. This includes small left-wing parties like the Communist Party of Iraq, which protested along with the Sadrists and subsequently joined them in an electoral alliance. As a result, the Sadrists might have a difficult time finding partners even if they win a sizable number of seats on their own. If the Sadrist Bloc does manage to gather enough allies, it would still have to contend with the Fatah Alliance which would likely continue trying to undermine its government. What’s more, the Sadrists now have political baggage resulting from scandals that took place when they were running the Ministries of Health and Electricity.
The pro-Iran Fatah Alliance might also perform well enough to try its luck with assembling the next government. But such a government would have to contend with a host of issues, including a lack of national and international acceptance and intra-coalition disagreements between ultra-conservative elements and pragmatic ones. An increase in Iranian influence under Fatah, or a crackdown on freedoms, would also prompt resistance from the Sadrist Bloc, reformist parties, and the anti-Iranian parts of the public.
Finally, the Alliance of National State Forces would have several potential advantages in trying to form a government. But they would be unlikely to bring about reform. Seen as moderates, Abadi and Hakim benefit from national and international acceptance, and are expected to have an easier time finding partners, including pro-reform elements that might see them as the lesser evil. Having longstanding personal relations with many in the establishment, Abadi and Hakim are unlikely to be rejected by it. But this would create contradictions that the two men might have trouble resolving: reform-minded voters will expect reform, while their establishment allies will expect them to maintain the status quo.
An Outsider Prime Minister
Lack of agreement on a premier might force elites to bring in a candidate from outside their ranks, like Kathemi. That is, someone who, as Iraqis might put it, “lacks the complexities of the past,” i.e. a pragmatic individual who does not have historical enmities with the political actors, enjoys international acceptance, and preempts the zero-sum game calculations that would result if one of their own ranks took the lead. Elites will sell finding a compromise candidate as an achievement. But a compromise premier is effectively a caretaker, one with little power to respond to challenges or implement reform measures.
A Consensus Government
The most probable outcome is an agreement among the major competing factions to form a consensus government. This has been the preferred solution after previous elections, and would be a ratification of the status quo. The political class in general, and the Shiite class in particular, is more divided than ever, making a consensus government easier than a formal coalition. This nominally inclusive model is seen as the least risky and would be tempting for many inside and outside the system who think it could provide relative stability in the country. As in past governments, political actors, under the guise of inclusion, would be offered government roles and kickbacks while no one would be expected to take responsibility for their failures.
A Better Possibility
The ruling elites have little in common except their desire to preserve the system. They are not willing to reform it, at least not yet. The next parliament is likely to continue doing things in the old spirit and the government emanating from it is unlikely to address the underlying deficiencies facing the country. And this will send millions of people back into the streets. Future protests are likely to be led by the al-Bayt al-Watani party, which was born out of the protest movement but decided to boycott the elections. It now leads the Political Opposition Project, which explicitly seeks to find alternatives to the political system through a range of activities, especially protests.
There is, perhaps, one alternative scenario, however unlikely. The best-case outcome would see a number of prominent parties come together to form a government with a clear mandate for change. This could include, for example, two or three core Shiite parties alongside one or two Sunni and Kurdish parties, and perhaps some independents and Tishreenis. Such a government might include the Alliance of National State Forces as well as others with nationalist tendencies who are determined to take on the pro-Iran camp.
A coalition of like-minded parties with a vision for reform would bring a number of benefits. First, it would facilitate the election of a decisive premier willing to take on difficult issues like corruption. Second, it would allow for a clear opposition force, scrutinizing the government’s work and helping to hold it accountable. Finally, it would allow citizens and voters to blame those in the ruling coalition in the event of failure.
So long as the country’s elites remain suspicious of each other and afraid of losing out on the spoils of being in government, this outcome is highly unlikely. But at some level these elites realize that if they do not allow any room for reform, the public will conclude change can only come through revolution and violence. Hopefully they will act on this realization before it’s too late.
Yasir Kuoti is a Baghdad-based political analyst with more than a decade of experience working in and on Iraq.