Walls and electrical poles in cities throughout Iraq were almost completely covered in the posters of more than 3,200 candidates running in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Myriads of policemen and inspectors have been deployed to thousands of polling stations, some 400,000 temporary workers were enlisted by the central election committee to ensure the election’s smooth proceedings, and hundreds of observers from the UN, Arab and Western countries are filling the cities’ hotels in preparation for what has been described as Iraq’s most important election.
That title was also conferred upon the past four elections, which ended with deep public disappointment. Iraqis treat parties and candidates’ promises with shrugs at best. In the previous election in 2018, only 40 percent of the eligible voters cast their vote, according to official estimates. But the real voter turnout was estimated to be half of that.
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The Iraqi public’s confidence in the democratic system crashed years ago. The voter turnout is expected to be low this time too, despite the law amendment that gives independent candidates a better chance than large parties – which in the past had taken over most parliament seats.
The only winners in each of the last election campaigns, including this one, are the temporary workers whose daily wage is $100, a large sum in a country whose poverty rate is 35 percent.
A number of political movements said they would boycott the election, believing it would fail to bring about change or advance the reforms necessary to rehabilitate the economy: creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for about eight million unemployed, establishing a reliable supply of water and electricity, strengthening personal security, or setting up a proper financial system to deal with an internal and external debt of some $134 billion and an $80 billion deficit respectively.
People interviewed on Iraqi media said the real struggle is over financial control, and the income a party or individual could rob from the state.
Those were also the reasons for holding the election, which was pushed up by two years, after the mass demonstrations of 2019 in which some 700 people were killed and more than 30,000 injured. The protest led to the fall of the previous government, which was replaced by a temporary government headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
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The prime minister promised to hold an early election on the basis of a new law, that divided the state into 83 provinces instead of the 18 previous provinces, to indict those responsible for the mass killing of protesters, and to end the American presence in Iraq.
Al-Kadhimi was supported internationally. He visited the White House, negotiated successfully over the U.S. army’s withdrawal, mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia and even hosted four meetings of senior delegations from the two mutually hostile states in Baghdad. But it is doubtful whether he’ll be elected for another term.
A so-called united front
The two fears surrounding the election concern which Shi’ite parties gain control over the power centers and the next government’s composition. The division within the political Shi’ite camp is deeper than ever. The leading bloc, led by the separatist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, won the previous election. It earned 54 of the 324 seats and became the largest bloc in the parliament.
Al-Sadr is running under two banners: getting the United States out of Iraq and keeping Iran out of Iraqi politics. The national motif he forwards and his religious backing – mostly due to his family dynasty rather than his religious authority – give al-Sadr a good chance of winning and becoming the next government’s kingmaker. The militia he formed, “the Mahdi’s army,” and his people’s inclusion in most sectors of the state are also expected to help him.
Opposite him is the Al-Fatah bloc, which is supported by the Shi’ite, pro-Iranian militias. It wishes to expand its parliamentary presence and serve as a political influence base for Iran. Other Shi’ite parties are running including Dawa, the oldest Shi’ite party, which joined the “state of law coalition” set up by former premier Nouri al-Maliki, who is seen as a staunch Tehran stalwart and as one of the most corrupt Iraqi prime ministers.
These blocs are fragile, presenting seemingly united fronts ahead of election, but usually fall apart afterwards in order to form new blocs ahead of forming a government. This will determine who the prime minister will be and what political forces, internal and external, he will have to deal with.
Assembling a government can take weeks, sometimes months until an agreement is reached on whom the prime minister will be and how to distribute the portfolios. For example, after the previous prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, resigned in November 2019 following the protest, the two candidates appointed by the president failed to put together an alternative government. Only last May, about six months after Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, al-Kadhimi was appointed to the job.
Every movement or bloc wants to take over influential ministerial portfolios with large budgets, such as defense, finance, oil or interior – to ensure the flow of cash into their pockets and their supporters. Until the wheeling and dealing ends to the satisfaction of the political and ethnic leaders, no government will be formed.
The portfolio distribution and the size of each ministry’s budget are of huge importance, which isn’t necessarily related to the state’s good. Controlling the money means ensuring the political and religious support of these movements’ supporters and is also related to the loyalty to each one’s spiritual leader. Religious rivalries among the Shi’ite sages are not usually interesting, but have a significant effect on Iraq’s political and economic health.
Going against the family
Last month, Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim, one of the four most senior religious leaders in Iraq, died. Al-Hakim was poised to succeed Ali al-Sistani as Iraq’s spiritual Shi’ite leader. He was also the al-Hakim family’s spiritual pillar, and although he didn’t deal with politics he gave the political movement his family had set up religious cache, handing it millions of supporters.
The al-Hakim family is the theological rival of the al-Sadr family. The rivalry is displayed in clashes between activists. The al-Hakim family is now dealing with the repercussions of their spiritual leaders’ death and the risk of many loyalists’ defection’ to al-Sadr ranks, or to other Shi’ite leaders.
One of them is Amar al-Hakim, who withdrew from the political family movement his uncle founded; the Islamic Supreme Council. He formed his own independent liberal list, al-Hikma, which appeals to secular young people.
Similar internal rivalries also exist among the Sunni movements, which are divided into two rival blocs; one headed by Iraqi millionaire Khamis al-Khanjar, and the other led by the parliamentary speaker, Mohamed al-Halbousi. The two are competing for the votes of the Sunni tribes in Iraq’s center and north. The Kurdish minority is similarly divided, with the Talabani family close to Iran opposite the Barzani family, which is cooperating with al-Sadr.
The families have shared interests, such as divvying up the income from the oil industry with the Baghdad government. But there are also political and personal interests associated with ruling the Kurdish district in northern Iraq.
The uncertainty around the election and the power play ahead of forming the next government is not only of concern to the Iraqi people, some of whom are preparing for tensions with the new government over improved living conditions. Iran is making huge efforts to ensure that the next government and prime minister preserve its political and military outposts in Iraq.
The anti-Iranian atmosphere that has developed over the last two years led to blaming Iran for deliberately damaging the power and water supply to south Iraq, and for standing behind the Shi’ite militias’ killing of demonstrators in 2019. As a result, the Shi’ite parties that oppose Tehran’s involvement could increase their strength at Iran’s expense.
Saudi Arabia is looking to increase its involvement in Iraq at Iran’s expense. It is negotiating with Tehran on rehabilitating relations with it. But if a pro-Iranian government is formed in Baghdad, it could restrict Saudi Arabia’s ability to expand its hold in Iraq. It could also empower the Shi’ite militias that are partly responsible for the attacks on Saudi land from Iraqi territory.
The United States, whose forces are expected to withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year, may also be dealt a harsh blow if the new falls under Iran’s auspices, just when it’s pulling out.
After the necessary but disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving Iraq will be registered as another defeat for President Joe Biden.
On the face of it, the realization of these scenarios depends on 16 million Iraqis who have registered to vote and have received the biometric card designed to prevent fraud. But the democratic process in Iraq is more than technical. The state’s official policy will be determined by the manipulations, alliances and distribution agreements among the movements’ leaders according to their private interests.