The Path to Change in Iraq—and the Obstacles Blocking It


Shafaq News/ Iraq has begun the long, tortuous and now-familiar process of post-election negotiations among the country’s powerful, mostly armed blocs, and the interregnum between the Oct. 10 parliamentary election and the swearing-in of a new government could potentially stretch into next summer.

The election results have made possible many important shifts in the country’s internal balance of power. But the risk of violence during the transition period looms large in a country where losing parties and factions have historically resorted to negotiating with violence and threats to destabilize the state. As a result, the likely outcome after months of negotiations and brinksmanship will be yet another national consensus government with a weak prime minister, allowing all parties—winners and losers—to share in the spoils of patronage and corruption while evading responsibility for Iraq’s failed governance.

Iraq’s electoral commission has published the results of the election online, and it is currently adjudicating challenges before the Supreme Court certifies the results. That is supposed to take place before a first parliamentary session scheduled for Nov. 20, but history suggests these deadlines are elastic technicalities.

That said, the specifics matter. Turnout in last week’s polls was historically low, with 43 percent of registered voters—but only 36 percent of eligible voters—casting a ballot. In terms of raw numbers, there was a dramatic drop-off of votes cast compared to the previous election—from 10.8 million votes in 2018 to 9.6 million on Oct. 10.

The low turnout is a crucial metric for an election that was called a year ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in October 2019 against endemic corruption and terrible governance. Many opposition parties, however, boycotted the polls in response to a campaign of intimidation and violence by armed militias, including the murder of dissidents.

The biggest winner from the polls was the Sadrist current, which has proven beyond a doubt its political capabilities. Despite gaining fewer votes than in 2018, the Sadrists claimed a decisive plurality of parliamentary seats, gaining about 20, for a total of 73. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also performed better than expected, emerging as the leading challenger to the Sadrists among the Shiite parties, whose internal negotiations will set the stage for overall government formation.

The dissident and independent candidates who ran despite the threats of violence and boycotts also performed reasonably well, although the post-election negotiations could reveal some of the independent candidates to be aligned with more established factions.

Harith Hasan of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center estimates that genuinely independent and dissident candidates could potentially end up with a bloc of roughly 30 to 40 members in a parliament of 329 members.

What this means for Iraqi governance, however, will depend on agreements struck during negotiations over the formation of a government. The Popular Mobilization Front militia factions most closely aligned with Iran fared poorly in the tally for seats, in part because they did not coordinate their campaigns and candidate lists as closely as they did in 2018. These factions, which have demonstrated the greatest willingness to deploy violence against the state, have rejected the results of the election on allegations of fraud and malpractice, none of which have been corroborated by independent, international election observers. These groups can nevertheless shut down Baghdad and other regions with protests and violence against their political rivals, as they have often done in the past.

Meaningful change in Iraq’s political fortunes would require outcomes that are for now unlikely. The most essential ingredient for an improvement in governance is a strong prime minister who possesses an independent political base and can act decisively, features that Iraq’s two most-recent prime ministers lacked. The Sadrists promised during the campaign that, if they won, they would nominate a strong prime minister from their own current. But it is possible that they will end up breaking this pledge in response to threats from the defeated parties—or even because they’d ultimately prefer not to bear full responsibility for the governance of Iraq.

Another ingredient of political change would be a reform of the spoils system, whereby every political faction gets a share of access to the Iraqi state’s treasure and resources. An end to this system would be the first step toward serious, long-term reform, but it would require the victors to dismantle a system under which they have thrived. Any group expelled from the spoils system would be likely to fight back; it’s unlikely to imagine the system being dismantled without bloodshed.

The Sadrists have been among the shrewdest manipulators of the system, steadily increasing their access to and share of patronage and resources with every successive government. And the Sadrists, like their rivals, continue to possess a powerful militia, despite this being technically proscribed by the Iraqi constitution. Sadrists initially supported the October 2019, or Tishreen, protests but later turned against them; now Sadrists stand accused of meting out violence and assassinations against Tishreen leaders. The Sadrist power base continues to rely on state patronage and militia power, meaning that the movement is unlikely to take a radical approach to dismantling corruption and investing in efficient state institutions.

One final question emerging from the polls is whether Iraq will finally get an elected opposition. The core group of protest and independent candidates might well get swallowed by the spoils system if too many join one of the existing coalitions. But some of them could remain true to their original vision—and to their constituents—by acting as a small but principled opposition in the parliament. They would almost certainly face obstruction, threats, and violence. But their actions could potentially transform the content of Iraqi political discourse by creating a culture of principled opposition, and even pushing real measures for transparency and accountability.

This is only a partial list of the key issues at stake after this election, most of which are unlikely to change for the better, at least not immediately. Some quarters of Iraqi opinion yearn for a stronger executive that can fix what’s broken, while many others are increasingly questioning Iraqi democracy entirely. But, even with all these caveats and causes for concern, there is still the potential for some improvements in governance, depending on how political negotiations unfold in the coming months.

Source: World Politics Review

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