Iraq's tainted election: Bullets, bribes, and boycotts

In-depth
7 min read
06 October, 2021
In-depth: As elections approach, many parties have stated their intention to boycott. They say that despite the vote being a key demand of the October Revolution, it cannot yield change in a context dominated by armed militias and corruption.

Iraq's parliamentary elections on 10 October are fast approaching, even as hope fades among civil and secular political groups that the sixth round of elections since the American invasion in 2003 will lead to any kind of tangible change.

Calls for election boycott

Signalling this loss of hope is the decision by most of the newly emerging political movements (which rose out of the October 2019 Revolution) as well as some of the traditional civil-secular parties to boycott the elections on the basis that they will not lead to the changes Iraqis are seeking.

Added to this is the widely held belief that these will not be free or fair elections because they are dominated by weapons and political money. Observers believe indicators point to the further decline of a civil presence in the next parliament.

"Signalling this loss of hope is the decision by most of the newly emerging political movements (which rose out of the October 2019 Revolution) as well as some of the traditional civil-secular parties to boycott the elections"

However, activists maintain that boycotting the elections is an attempt to highlight the illegitimacy of the current political process which is based on muhasasa al-taifiya (an ethnic and sectarian power-sharing quota system).

EU, UN will monitor elections

While activists have clearly expressed their lack of trust in the election process, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has stated that his government has put strong measures in place to prevent voter fraud in the upcoming elections.

He has stressed that the elections are the only solution to Iraq's problems and that there will be an international presence to supervise the process - hoping that this will increase its credibility in Iraqi eyes.

It is of note that Kadhimi himself withdrew from the electoral contest after a political crisis that saw the Tayyar al-Marhala party frozen. This was a new, liberal party led by Kadhimi’s advisers in which he had also held a high-ranking position.

Iraq's tainted election: Bullets, bribes, and boycotts
Iraqis walk past electoral billboards of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections. A total of 329 seats are up for grabs in the election, which was moved forward from 2022 as a concession to youth-led pro-democracy protests that erupted in October 2019. [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images]

Many civil society and political organisations have come together in recent weeks to form an oppositional front to the government, expressing a unified commitment to the boycott. The most prominent of the parties publicly endorsing non-participation are Al-Bayt al-Watani ('National Home') and the Iraqi Communist Party.

To vote would give elections 'veneer of legitimacy'

Ahmad Haqqi, a civil society activist and member of Iraq's tayar al-madani ('civil trend') was forced to relocate from his home in southern Iraq to Erbil nearly a year ago, after receiving death threats from unnamed armed groups.

He says: "The vast majority of civil activists have chosen not to run as candidates because participating in the elections gives them a veneer of legitimacy and ignores that the entire process is dominated by weapons, money and vote-buying, which means that there is no chance of achieving real representation".

"The vast majority of civil activists have chosen not to run as candidates because participating in the elections gives them a veneer of legitimacy and ignores that the entire process is dominated by weapons, money and vote buying"

Serious questions for the government

He adds: "We will not take part, and that's final. However, we are asking why the government has failed to confront the sectarian discourse emanating from the religious blocs and parties during their campaigns, why they have been silent on the plundering of state resources and the issue of armed factions in these elections and about what has happened to the legal regulation prohibiting the participation of armed militias in the elections".

He stresses that the coming elections will not bring new faces to power and will not bring about any chance for progress "as long as the sectarian power-sharing system is accepted as the political norm in the country".

Elections were key demand of protests

However, Amar al-Naemi, who leads Harakat Nazl Akhuth Haqi (founded in Baghdad after the 2019 demonstrations), confirms that "early elections were one of the popular demands at the protests, in which civilians, seculars and youth were the vanguard".

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"The boycott adopted by some of the new political groups will weaken the chances of civilians winning seats, and this is exactly what most of the established Islamic political organisations want – as do the armed groups -because they fear independent voices who are not implicated in corruption scandals and embezzlement," he added.

"The decision to boycott is understandable. However, we see it as our duty to take part in the political process so we have a chance to fight the corruption from within parliament, and contribute to bringing about genuine reform which the protesting crowds were demanding, as well as those who were killed protesting".

Some new parties fronts for old

Hamid al-Sayed, the spokesman for the Wa'y Movement, one of the new parties promoting civil society political involvement in Iraq, says: "Some new Iraqi parties have adopted a civil and secular discourse but are in fact fronts for the old, established blocs who have an ideology, and most of them have failed to establish a comprehensive national plan.

"The boycott adopted by some of the new political groups will weaken the chances of civilians winning seats, and this is exactly what most of the established Islamic political organisations want – as do the armed groups"

"Nor have they tackled major issues like Iraqi aspirations for basic rights and services and that corruption be combatted. Most of these parties haven’t made clear statements regarding parliamentary representation".

He adds: "The new election law will lead to a decline in the representation of the smaller, less influential parties, not only those established after the October 2019 protests but older parties too. Raising the call for boycott acknowledges this loss, and that the law change does nothing for their political aspirations.

"It could also be said that the civil and secular bloc's lack of pragmatism is one of their main problems. However, there is still hope in some of the independent candidates, especially those who are influential in their community or regions".

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A dangerous model

Hussein al-Ghorabi, chair of Al-Beit-Al-Watani, another new party boycotting the elections, points out that those boycotting the elections are not doing so to undermine the democratic process – the most visible indicator of which is elections.

"Rather, they are standing against the uncontrolled spread of weapons among members and leaders of some parties and power blocs which are not only active in Iraqi politics and participating in the elections but are also exploiting state resources to win seats in parliament.

"Elections are what we have all been seeking – the angry crowds who were protesting on the streets; Iraqi civilians and nationalists; however, the current reality is producing a very dangerous model of election which we refuse to be a part of".

"The electoral process has been corrupted: major political parties have been able to enrich themselves and use their money to bribe voters – they see elections as a process to be manipulated, where voters are bought and sold"

He says that Al-Beit-Al-Watani hopes the boycott will add to the political and popular pressure needed to alter the political trajectory Iraq is on, which has been decimated by the militias and spread of arms.

Iraqi politician and former MP Shirouk Alabayachi believes that those resorting to boycotting have many justifications.

Rotten electoral system

"The government has proven itself incapable of dealing with the huge security problems, threats directed at civil and secular party leaders and candidates, and the assassinations of candidates. These groups had already asked that weapons be collected and kept within state control, and this has not happened despite hundreds of Iraqis having been shot and killed by unknown groups".

"The electoral process has been corrupted: major political parties have been able to enrich themselves and use their money to bribe voters – they see elections as a process to be manipulated, where voters are bought and sold.  Furthermore, the civil boycott is a direct result of the government's inability to enact civil demands".

Iraq's tainted election: Bullets, bribes, and boycotts
An Iraqi walks past electoral billboards in Baghdad on September 19, 2021. The sign underneath reads: "Don't vote amid uncontrolled weapons, corrupt money and vote-buying". [SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Alabayachi believes that "Iraq’s people ultimately hold the power even if the chances of civilians winning seats in this parliament is slight – the Iraqi people have the potential to be the biggest counterweight to the corruption of the politicians".

Political analyst Abdallah al-Rikabi is not hopeful of change: "At the coming elections, we will see the election of independent candidates who were previously with established parties. Most of these 'independent' MPs will revert to alliances with their original parties after the new government has been formed, meaning there will be no significant civilian presence in the next parliament.

"The reasons put forward by the new civil parties for boycotting - like weapons proliferation among armed factions - should have been justifications to push for participation in the elections, in order to challenge and dismantle these factions, dry up their sources of money and power and get control over their weapons".

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko