The Iraq Report: Vote marred by dwindling faith in democracy

An Iraqi woman shows her ink-stained index finger before a national flag after having cast her vote in the first parliamentary election since declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group, in the capital Baghdad's Karrada district on May 12, 2018
6 min read
11 October, 2021
It is already clear that Iraqi politics is suffering from a serious crisis of legitimacy and a failure to act soon may mean that democracy – such as it ever was – may lose the ability to be resuscitated and reformed at all.

Now that polls have closed and the turnout has been formally announced by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the preliminary results of the early elections are expected within hours.

In a single day of voting, a minority of Iraqis turned out to elect their new representatives for the next four years. The number of constituencies were expanded, and voters were able to vote for individual candidates rather than electoral lists.

However, and whoever ultimately comes out on top in a minority government, it is already clear that Iraqi politics is suffering from a serious crisis of legitimacy and a failure to act soon may mean that democracy – such as it ever was – may lose the ability to be resuscitated and reformed at all.

"Iraqis now know what to expect, and it appears to be yet another edition of the revolving door of elites dividing the spoils of ministry budgets amongst themselves"

Low turnout reflects dwindling faith in democracy

Perhaps the biggest casualty of Sunday’s election was the democratic system itself which has been knocked for the second election in a row after analysts and even the IHEC confirmed that the turnout was at an all-time low.

Earlier in the night, analysts and reporters had estimated a turnout as low as 25 percent. Had that number stood as the official result, then it would have had absolutely catastrophic consequences for not only domestic, but international faith in Iraqi democracy.

However, the IHEC announced earlier today that the turnout was actually 41 percent – obviously significantly better than the 25 percent figure touted earlier, but still dramatically low as it meant only two-fifths of the eligible electorate cast a vote.

The reason for this is readily apparent, as a large number of disillusioned and disaffected Shia Arab youth and middle-class voters – the bulk of the demographics of the 2019 protest movement – had decided to boycott the poll.

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High school teacher Abdul Ameer Hassan al-Saadi told Reuters he boycotted the election, the first parliamentary polls since the 2019 protests and the subsequent crackdown. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed and some 600 people were killed over several months.

“I lost my 17-year-old son Hussain after he got killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during Baghdad protests,” said al-Saadi, whose house is close to a polling station in the mainly Shia district of Karrada in the Iraqi capital.

“I will not vote for killers and corrupt politicians because the wound inside me and his mother we suffered after losing our boy is still bleeding.”

Iraqi security forces and allied Shia militias were renowned for using heavy-handed tactics to quell demonstrations, including firing ordinarily non-lethal riot control rounds in a manner designed to kill protesters.

International human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, issued statements of condemnation and raised concerns that Iraqi forces were firing tear gas grenades directly at demonstrators’ heads with the intent of killing them.

An Iraqi student waves his country's national flag during anti-government protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on January 28, 2020
The electoral system is widely believed to benefit the interests of powerful elites and their foreign backers. [Getty]

By using non-lethal rounds in a lethal manner, it was suspected that state authorities and pro-Iran militants were trying to cover up their tactics by pretending they were simply horrific accidents.

The chief Iraq election observer of the European Union, Viola von Cramon, said the relatively low turnout was significant.

“This is a clear…political signal and one can only hope that it will be heard by the politicians and by the political elite of Iraq,” she told reporters.

Questions have been raised regarding the IHEC’s 41% figure, with independent journalists reporting that there had been “widespread irregularities” that allowed them to pump up the number to make it appear that more people had voted.

If such allegations materialise as true – as has happened in previous elections – then it will only serve to further erode the public’s trust in the electoral system that is widely believed to benefit the interests of powerful elites and their foreign backers.

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Sadr likely to clinch the largest share of seats again

However, and whatever the true figure actually is, even the official number is nothing to be proud of. While analysts such as the Atlantic Council’s Abbas Kadhim have told Al Jazeera that a low turnout was in “no shape or form an indicator of the illegitimacy of the election”, it will be a tall order indeed for any Iraqi administration to claim they have a popular mandate.

Following every election, parties begin to engage in the now customary horse-trading, deciding amongst themselves who will hold the post of prime minister, president, and parliamentary speaker, reserved for a Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni Arab candidate respectively.

This election is set to be no different as, again, no party will walk away with a parliamentary majority due to the confessional politics instituted under American patronage following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Early indications seem to suggest that Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc will again clinch the most seats, followed closely by the Fatah Alliance led by Badr Organisation commander Hadi al-Ameri and the State of Law Coalition led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The fact that Shia Islamist groups – all with a history of close ties to Iran – are leading the way in yet another election marred by potential irregularities and a historically low turnout is unsurprising. Sadr is renowned for his organisation’s ability to mobilise, having used an app this year to direct his supporters exactly where and how to vote.

"While the early elections were called in response to protester demands, none of the militia leaders of high-ranking security commanders have ever been held to account for violence against demonstrators"

Further, the Fatah Alliance is acting as the political arm of the largely pro-Iran Shia militias operating under the aegis of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, and the State of Law Coalition has also had numerous political agreements and alliances with Fatah.

All three blocs were heavily involved in supporting – including by mobilising fighters – the crushing of the popular protest movement.

While the early elections were called in response to protester demands, none of the militia leaders of high-ranking security commanders have ever been held to account for violence against demonstrators, nor have any charges been brought against politicians and public figures who instigated and supported such attacks.

It is therefore unsurprising that the violence against a popular movement led to such a dire turnout for an unpopular election.

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Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Iraqis now know what to expect, and it appears to be yet another edition of the revolving door of elites dividing the spoils of ministry budgets amongst themselves while nothing gets done for the Iraqi people.

Sunday’s election did not alleviate their concerns or give them an opportunity to enforce change. Rather, the poll demonstrated to them, yet again, that the system cannot be changed by conventional means as the odds are stacked against anyone trying to make a legitimate difference.

This can only bode poorly for Iraq’s future, not only in terms of civic participation in popular politics, but also in terms of what may happen.

As participation in politics is increasingly viewed to not be an option, people may take matters into their own hands, and the next protest movement may not be so peaceful.

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

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The Iraq Report