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Tallha Abdulrazaq

Elections will do nothing to address Iraq's decay

Incumbent PM Haider al-Abadi is up against shifting party affiliations [AFP]

Date of publication: 11 May, 2018

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Comment: Given the sectarian divisions gripping Iraq today, it cannot truly be said that the country is engaging in democracy, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
With millions of Iraqis forcibly displaced in their own country and millions more in urgent need of aid, how can any election result be taken seriously?

A big song and dance has been made about the upcoming Iraqi elections this Saturday, as though Iraq was about to metamorphose from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.

If we were to take the Baghdad authorities seriously, these elections represent a long overdue panacea to Iraq's long-term problems, and will correct the war-ravaged country's meandering path through violence, sectarianism and poverty to chart a new course to inclusive democracy, peace and stability.

As the past 15 years demonstrate, however, one should never take Baghdad's word for anything, least of all on the subject of the prosperity of its own people.

Sectarian mass exclusion cripples democratic credentials

Today, Iraq has a population of some 37 million people. Despite the deadly sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations in 1990 that even restricted medical supplies from entering the country, and the possibly millions who died as a result of those sanctions and ensuing military action, the Iraqi population has steadily increased.

One might expect that such pluralism within a population almost 40 million strong would assist in the exercise of democracy, but that is far from the case.

While Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was keen to call for elections after declaring victory over the forces of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation, he failed to lay down any policy for dealing with the millions of Iraqis who were currently living as refugees in their own country.

According to United Nations figures, more than three million Iraqis are currently classified as internally displaced persons, with almost nine million classified as in need of urgent humanitarian aid. These catastrophic numbers are as a direct result of the war against IS, and the methods the terrorist organisation used, in addition to the overbearing brutality used by the Iraqi government and allied pro-Iran Shia militias in their fight against IS.

In other words, almost an entire third of the Iraqi population is extremely vulnerable and are therefore at risk of being excluded almost by default from the democratic process.

More than three million Iraqis are currently classified as internally displaced persons

In any other country that claimed to be a democracy, this would not only be a cause for concern, but it would be cause enough to declare a state of emergency in order to rectify the appalling conditions faced by those displaced and adversely affected by a war they certainly did not ask for.

In this way, the government could have ensured the participation of all its citizens, not just those they know will vote their way.

Making matters worse is the fact that the vast majority of those affected by the war against IS and who are now unable to participate in determining their country's future, are from the Sunni Arab demographic.

Read more: Iraq elections: Meet the contenders

Already a marginalised community that has suffered a decade and a half of the Shia-led and Iran-linked government's persecution, their lack of participation means that the issues that gave rise to the conditions for IS have not only not been dealt with, but they have been exacerbated.

Iraqi politicians who are allies of the ruling party have been on the record as saying that Sunni Arab families in IDP camps are actually IS terrorists.

This securitisation of a major demographic and its treatment shows how little the central authorities care about the Sunni vote, as long as the Shia Arab heartland that went largely unaffected throughout the war can turn out to vote in large numbers, ensuring landslides for Shia Islamist parties, many of whom owe their allegiances to Iran rather than to their own country.

Extremism set to reign supreme

It is in this environment that the Iraqi elections must be contextualised, an environment of raging sectarianism, disdain for an inseparable part of the Iraqi identity, and a single-minded desire to prop up the status quo while paying lip service to reform.

Despite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urging Iraq's Shia to not re-elect corrupt candidates, the fact that he had to say so is quite telling in and of itself, as most of the candidates of the major parties and alliances have either already long been a part of the political process since 2003, or have influenced it in some way.

It is likely that Iraq's sectarianism will increase, not decrease

These include known sectarian extremists, such as Hadi al-Amiri who is heading the Conquest Alliance, a bloc comprised of Shia Islamist militias fighting under the banner of the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). 

The PMF is also fielding candidates such as clerics Qais al-Khazali and Akram al-Kaabi, both of whom are - like Amiri himself - militants directly linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Read more: More divided than ever, Iraq's Kurds risk shooting themselves in the foot

With the PMF's candidates positioning themselves as Iraq's saviours from the IS threat, it is likely that Shia Arab-dominated areas will vote for these candidates, ensuring their political future and their increased power.

Amiri's Badr Organisation has already controlled the interior ministry for over a decade, but with a larger vote share and new alliances with other pro-Iran sectarian militants, it is likely that Iraq's sectarianism will increase, not decrease.

The decay that has plagued Iraq for 15 years will not be erased through a simple election

In such an environment, it cannot truly be said that Iraq is engaging in democracy.

After all, the presence of extremists on the ballots will in turn cause reactionary Sunni extremists to pick up where IS left off, triggering another cycle of bloody violence.

This must be avoided at all costs, but sadly, it seems that Iraq may already be destined to face another crushing war as the decay that has plagued Iraq for 15 years will not be erased through a simple election where a third of the country has been excluded.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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