Why have opposition parties in Iraq failed to unite?

iraq protest
6 min read
02 December, 2021
In-depth: Iraqi opposition parties have so far failed to form a united front to challenge the ruling elite and push for reforms.

As the biggest winners of Iraq’s 10 October parliamentary elections coordinate efforts to form the upcoming government, opposition parties have so far failed to crystalise a coherent approach to pushing for long-suspended reforms.

Although the election witnessed the lowest ever turnout, at just 41 percent, it was the first early vote to be held in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein and replaced it with a ruling system that was hoped to be democratic.

But the new system has been marred by an ethno-sectarian quota system among Iraq’s different social groups - Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Christians, and Turkmen.

The election was described by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and other Iraqi political parties as being the “most pure” since the first general election in 2005.  

"Opposition parties have so far failed to crystalise a coherent approach to pushing for long-suspended reforms"

Several new parties that emerged from the October protest movement in 2019, which rallied against the entrenched political elite, along with independent candidates, participated in the election and won nearly 40 parliamentary seats.

The Imtidad (Extension) Movement, led by pharmacist Alaa al-Rikabi, 47, won nine of the 329 seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, according to formal results announced by the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).  Ishraqat Kanun, comprised of Islamist-oriented demonstrators, also won six seats, while the Christian Babylonian Movement won four seats. 

“The Imtidad movement has never and would never enter into a governmental partnership with a side that was part of previous corruption,” Dr Hassan Muhammed, a public relations official from the movement, told The New Arab.

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Asked why opposition parties have been unsuccessful in forming a joint bloc inside the Iraqi parliament or - at a minimum - unifying their stances, Muhammed said, “the answer for this needs some time”.

But in order to exert any influence, smaller parties will need to seek out alliances with each other.

Heading a senior delegation from his movement, al-Rikabi visited Sulaymaniyah city in the Iraqi Kurdistan region on 21 October and met with Shaswar Abdulwahid, President of the New Generation Movement (NG) – a Kurdish opposition party that also secured nine seats in the elections.

They discussed “joint visions for Iraq’s future and activating the role of the parliamentary opposition,” according to a statement released after the meeting.  

“There are frequent efforts in order for all the opposition and independent lawmakers to unite, but we as the NG have not decided yet,” Himdad Shahin, the official spokesperson of the NG, told The New Arab. “We have given a project to the Kurdish forces, and we are waiting for their responses, thus we have not made any decisions yet.”  

He also said that currently they do not think they can serve the people through participating in the upcoming Iraqi federal cabinet.

An Iraqi youth sits leaning on a wall with a graffiti mural showing a protester with text in Arabic reaing "we see the future from the narrowest angles", at the anti-government sit-in in the capital's Tahrir Square on December 24, 2019
Several new parties that emerged from the October protest movement in 2019, which rallied against the entrenched political elite, participated in the election. [Getty]

“Therefore, we will remain as an opposition force. It is crucial that a party has nine parliamentary seats, but [we] do not want any [political] interests, posts, and cabinet portfolios.”

This stance by the NG to refuse to enter coalition-building in Baghdad is the first such move since 2005 by any Kurdish political party that has won seats in the Iraqi parliament.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) is another Kurdish opposition party that won two seats in 2018 but doubled its representation in Baghdad in the October election.

“The leadership of our party has settled our position and we will not participate in the forthcoming Iraqi government and will be an opposition party,” Muthana Amin, an MP from KIU told The New Arab in a phone interview.

He said that there are no serious efforts for unifying the positions of opposition parties because the parliament has not officially formed and the election results need to be ratified by Iraq’s Federal Court.

“It is necessary that all opposition voices unify to put pressure on the authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan region to yield to make reforms,” Amin said.

"The existence of an active opposition is a key factor for any working democracy. However, in today's Iraq, not all of the powers are put under the sovereignty of the state. We have a situation where non-state actors have different militias"

Abubakr Ali, an independent Kurdish political analyst, said that the opposition parties in Iraq and the Kurdistan region have no chance of becoming bigger or more influential due to the weakness of the Iraqi state’s institutions.

“The existence of an active opposition is a key factor for any working democracy. However, in today’s Iraq, not all of the powers are put under the sovereignty of the state. We have a situation where non-state actors have different militias and the Iraqi state and its institutions are weak,” Ali told The New Arab. “Hence, I do not think the Iraqi opposition parties are expecting to play an active role, as they would in a flourishing democracy,” he added. 

“The opposition parties, moreover, have different interests and understandings. Not all of them are performing politics for the general good, some of them might even be under the influence of different agendas and polarisations,” Ali clarified, when asked why opposition parties cannot unite.

“The opposition parties have a weak tolerance towards each other and do not believe they can play their expected role. Some opposition parties have good links with the ruling parties; this limits their manoeuvring to form alliances with the other opposition parties.” 

Students from the Kurdistan region’s public universities and institutes last week held large-scale demonstrations demanding improved living conditions on campus, but the security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responded with tear gas and lethal force to disperse demonstrators.

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The opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan have so far failed to present a coherent stance in response to the mounting protests against the KRG.

“They have different views, and feeble cooperation among the forces themselves and with society,” Ali added.

Pro-Iran Shia parties that did poorly in the elections have rejected the results and have called for holding a new vote, threatening to defy the electoral outcome with force.  

“While the risk of continued political deadlock is real, Iraq desperately needs a government that is able to swiftly and effectively tackle the long list of unfinished domestic business,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, told the UN Security Council last week.

For Iraq to transcend its ethno-sectarian quota system, and regional polarisation, to become a country where democracy, human rights, coexistence, and prosperity can flourish, Iraqi opposition parties need to unify their positions before it is too late.

Otherwise, support could grow among Iraqis for military or revolutionary violence to regain their lost state.  

Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy