The Iraq Report: A scramble for votes as elections loom

An Iraqi student waves his country's national flag during anti-government protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on January 28, 2020
7 min read
15 September, 2021
As Iraqis prepare to vote, the prime minister has proposed new legislation and signed last-minute international agreements - but will this sway the public?

Iraqis will head to the polls on 10 October. This will be a crucial test of the new Iraqi order installed after the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship.

Following years of dwindling public participation in elections, with voters consistently citing a lack of faith in a political process that appears to reward cronyism, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has attempted to show that he is loyal neither to the US nor Iran, but to Iraq itself.

To that end, Kadhimi has taken measures to boost his nationalist credentials by proposing new legislation and signing last-minute international agreements.

"Kadhimi has taken measures to boost his nationalist credentials by proposing new legislation and signing last-minute international agreements"

Domestically, Kadhimi's government is attempting to push a bill through parliament to reinstate military conscription - a policy that was scrapped 18 years ago after the US invasion. 

On the international front, Kadhimi has signed a $27bn deal with French multinational energy giant Total to enhance Iraqi natural resource extraction, while scrapping visa requirements with neighbouring Iran to boost tourism and trade.

Kadhimi hopes these recent policy decisions will drive voters to polling stations. However, Iraqi voter fatigue is unlikely to be overcome by reforms proposed such a short time before the election, and he may find himself fighting to maintain public confidence.

Election concerns spur government drive for conscription

In a last-ditch effort to shore up his nationalist credentials and to tempt voters to back his legislative agenda, incumbent Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has announced his intention to push for the return of a widely unpopular military conscription law.

Kadhimi announced that his cabinet had, late last month, approved a restoration of the military conscription law that was scrapped almost two decades ago by US military governor Paul Bremer. In 2003, he disbanded Iraq's original national armed forces, replacing it with the beginnings of the security forces that exist today.

At the time, Bremer's decision was hugely damaging and put almost half a million Iraqis out of employment and provided insurgent groups with a ripe crop of militarily trained recruits, ready to fight back against the US occupation and against the new voluntary force Bremer was building.

Iraq Protests.jpg
Popular protests against corruption and Iraq's political elite have continued almost incessantly since 2019. [Getty]

Under the new conscription law, all Iraqis between the ages of 18 - 35 will be called up for military service, with women being offered non-combat roles. The period of service will vary according to a conscript's level of education, employment, and other mitigating factors. 

Low-skilled and uneducated Iraqis can expect to serve two years. However, wealthier Iraqis could exempt themselves from military service entirely by paying a fee. This exemption further engenders fears of a class-based split in which poorer Iraqis would shoulder the burdens that come with conscription while those with money and political connections could avoid them.

"It seems obvious that none of the rich and corrupt elite's sons will serve in the armed forces," said Ahmad al-Mahmud of the London-based Iraqi opposition group, the Foreign Relations Bureau

"If they do, it will be for either a very short time or on a very safe deployment. It is the poor that will suffer the worst of this unfair law."

"It seems obvious that none of the rich and corrupt elite's sons will serve in the armed forces"

Badr al-Ziyadi, a member of the parliamentary Security and Defence Committee and the Sairoun coalition led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said that the parliamentary vote on the proposed bill will not take place until after the 10 October poll.

Arguably, the delayed voting will allow political opponents of Kadhimi to orient their policies to match voter sentiment less than a month before the elections. While candidates have expressed concerns about aspects of the bill, many have been supportive.

"This law is so important in a time when some youths have effeminate features, [and] others spend a long time on the internet and games," Ziyadi told Middle East Eye.

"They have to join the military to learn patience and how to face harsh conditions."

Historically, military conscription has been used by modern nation-states not only to boost the amount of men under arms that can be deployed to the front, but to inculcate a sense of national identity through the institution of the military. 

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This was certainly the case in Iraq, and the most successful example of conscription was during the 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran. The Baathist authorities used conscription to flesh out the ranks of its most elite formations, including the Republican Guard, which was largely staffed by educated university graduates.

However, sentiments such as those expressed by Ziyadi are likely to infuriate young Iraqis who already face harsh conditions in a country ravaged by decades of war, with a floundering economy, and an administration beset by some of the worst corruption levels in the world.

It is also important to note that a large proportion of Iraq's population is young, with a median age of 21 years. This means that many of the voters that Kadhimi is trying to attract will be those affected by the conscription law. If they view it as opposing their interests, they will likely shift their vote to support a party or bloc that opposes the reinstatement of military conscription.

Kadhimi tries to shore up economy before polls

Aside from a few domestic legal gambits, Kadhimi is also striving to show that he can achieve better results for Iraqis on two endemic issues that have plagued the country for decades - its legless economy and its perennial energy crisis.

Over the weekend, Kadhimi became the first foreign leader to visit Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi. They discussed a number of issues relating to enhancing mutual economic interests, Iranian energy exports, and Iraq's role as a mediator in Iranian-Saudi talks.

Following the discussions, a press conference held on Sunday revealed that the two sides had agreed to scrap visa requirements between the two countries, seen as a move to enhance trade and tourism.

"Kadhimi is also striving to show that he can achieve better results for Iraqis on two endemic issues that have plagued the country for decades - its legless economy and its perennial energy crisis"

Both Baghdad and Tehran agreed to build new railway and highway links to facilitate cross-border travel, stating that they would continue high-level discussions on economic and energy concerns, as well as Iraq's bid to build bridges between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The deal between the two neighbours will likely facilitate two-way religious tourism for the respective countries' Shia faithful. Many Iranian pilgrims travel to Iraq to visit holy shrine cities, while Iran is home to some of Shia Islam's most well-regarded seminaries.

This will further solidify Iran's religious influence over Iraq which is a well-known aspect of their so-called regional "Shia crescent" of control, stretching from Iran to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

Kadhimi's diplomatic efforts with Iran are likely to bolster the perception of the economic impact of his administration's $27bn deal with French energy giant Total that was announced on 5 September.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (L) and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (R) give a joint news conference following talks in Tehran, Iran on 12 September 2021. [Iranian Presidency Handout]
Kadhimi became the first foreign leader to visit Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi. [Getty]

The deal with Total has been touted as a means for making Iraq more energy independent, including by providing expertise and investment in making it easier to extract Iraqi crude oil by injecting seawater into underground oil wells, while also boosting income from natural gas exports with the construction of new processing plants.

Total has also been contracted to construct a major solar power plant to help ease Iraq's reliance on Iranian energy exports. This is also intended to reduce the load on Iraq's domestic power grid that has not been updated or maintained properly since it was seriously damaged in the 1991 Gulf War.

"Iraqi voter fatigue is unlikely to be overcome by reforms proposed such a short time before the election"

These economic developments, while certainly welcome as a first earnest step in the right direction, will not alleviate Iraq's domestic energy woes to any appreciable degree as the Total plant will only cover 1,000MW of electricity production (Iraq was projected to require at least 22,000MW this summer).

Even when taken alongside the deal signed last month with Power China, a Chinese state electricity infrastructure construction company, that is to produce 2,000MW of solar energy upon completion, this is not enough to plug the gap in energy consumption and Iraqis will continue to face power cuts in the face of searing temperatures.

With popular protests continuing almost incessantly since 2019, including due to these chronic power cuts, it is highly likely that Iraqis will view Kadhimi's (and the political elite's) efforts as cosmetic, or even simply a case of "too little, too late".

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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