While Iraq’s next government may be “business as usual,” the election has planted the seeds for change

An Iraqi protester flying the national flag at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square – Image by Mondalawy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published by The Middle East Institute – November 1, 2021

Iraq’s Oct. 10 election may be more consequential than its immediate results suggest. Some of the subtle facts and dynamics surrounding the election point to interesting trends and possibilities, more so than the headline-grabbing expansion of Muqtada al-Sadr’s power in the Iraqi legislature, or the losses suffered by candidates representing Iran-backed militias.

It may seem paradoxical at first, but this election could provide the conditions for a future rebound in voter engagement. The record low turnout, which Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) put at 43% of registered voters (equivalent to 38% of eligible voters), confirms earlier polling data that pointed to the erosion of confidence in Iraq’s electoral process since 2018 due to the influence of powerful parties and militias. Understandably, the shortcomings of that election, combined with relentless violence against political activists, motivated some parties and candidates representing the Tishreen protest movement and its allies to opt out of the October election, and pushed many voters, particularly young people, to stay home.

However, this parliamentary election was clearly different from the previous one in 2018. International support and Iraqi efforts have produced a “technically sound” election that is considered an improvement over 2018 and has so far been free of the widespread irregularities, suspected foul play, and cover-up allegations that tainted that election.

The technical side of the October vote, though improved, was not flawless. Indeed, there have been some embarrassing data glitches in the days since Oct. 10 — in one case an IHEC publication mistakenly doubled the number of voters at more than 50 million. Setting those aside, the absence of credible allegations of widespread fraud may go a long way toward restoring confidence, at least with regard to election day management and fraud prevention, provided there’s ongoing strong oversight and engagement by Iraqi civil society and the international community.

Pre-election fraud and manipulation remain the biggest challenge to establishing a fully credible electoral process that Iraqis can wholeheartedly embrace. Many of Iraq’s major parties, including Sadr’s bloc, his rivals in the Fatah coalition, and the major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), for that matter, would not be eligible to compete in elections if IHEC were to follow the law. Iraqi laws prohibit political parties from having military or paramilitary organizations — a legal obstacle that has not prevented armed groups, including those under U.S. sanctions for terrorism, from fielding candidates and winning seats.

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