1001 Iraqi Thoughts

  In 1001 Iraqi Thoughts

MAKING SENSE OF IRAQ’S ELECTION

There have been a number of surprising results in the Iraqi general election, which itself is good news as unpredictability in an election is a healthy sign for a nascent democracy, and one that stood out was the extremely low turnout. With just 44% of the electorate showing up to vote, the majority decided to stay at home for the first time since the general election in 2005, despite the improved security and optimistic mood following the defeat of ISIS.

The low turnout had a direct impact on the other shock result of the election, the success of Moqtada al-Sadr whose loyal base once again turned up in numbers giving his list a disproportionate number of seats. Although the incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi managed to bring the country together after ISIS went on its rampage and many outsiders believing it was the end of Iraq itself, he failed to tackle corruption and push through serious reform that would transform the lives of ordinary Iraqis, who have long suffered at the hands of successive governments unable to deliver even the most basic services.

Whilst the official results have still not been finalised due to problems with the electronic voting system that was used for the first time, it appears Abadi has come second, behind Sadr and just ahead of the Iran-backed Fatah list. However, this election was never about who wins the most seats but who can form the biggest coalition. Despite the blow, Abadi still has a chance to maintain the premiership given his acceptability across the sectarian divide and his ability to balance Iraq’s relations with both Iran and the United States.

It is remarkable that Abadi’s coalition won the most votes in Sunni-dominated Mosul, just four years after his predecessor lost the city, along with one-third of Iraq, to ISIS. Also for the first time in Iraq, Shia-led coalitions won hundreds of thousands of votes in Sunni-dominated provinces, Islamists were running together with Communists, and one Kurdish party even campaigned in the Shia-dominated south. It may still be too early for any government to fundamentally change the structural problems that have plagued the country for decades, but it is clear the Iraqi people have had enough with the status quo.

Following the successful result of the recent election in Lebanon which saw gains for Hezbollah and its allies, the Iranians will be disappointed with the result in Iraq as they expected the political wings of the main popular mobilisation forces that Iran backs to convert their battlefield gains against ISIS into more seats in parliament. However, despite escalating regional tensions in Syria, Yemen and over the status of Iranian nuclear deal, it is hoped that both Tehran and Washington will continue to work towards a unified, stable Iraq as neither side would want to risk the fragile peace that they both helped to establish.

The challenge now, however, is that it was largely the common threat that ISIS posed which brought together a disparate number of regional and international actors in Iraq, and now that ISIS has been contained, it will become increasingly more difficult for Baghdad to embrace both the U.S. and Iran without provoking one or the other.

Iraq does not want to take sides in any regional conflict but may unwillingly become part of the battlefield if war does break out. Baghdad will be banking on its unique position in the region to ensure the tacit deconfliction between the U.S. and Iran is maintained, especially as it continues to reach out to its Gulf Arab neighbours to facilitate their reengagement after a decade of boycott and mutual mistrust.

The other good news of this election process was the clear shift away from sectarian and identity-based politics towards a more conciliatory and nationalist discourse from across the political spectrum.

Still reeling from the brutal war against ISIS, the Iraqi people demonstrated their frustration with the abuse of religion and sectarian mobilisation that politicians previously manipulated to win votes. Whilst the politicians themselves may not necessarily be true believers of this new Iraqi nationalism, the fact that the mainstream parties switched their rhetoric indicates their acknowledgement that the people at large have shifted their priorities.

What helped the political parties shift the political narrative away from sectarianism was the fact that major ethno-sectarian blocs splintered into even smaller factions. The mobilisation during the campaign was no longer about sectarian competition but intra-sectarian politics, and several parties looked beyond their own communities to attract votes elsewhere. This will make the post-election cross-sectarian alliances more likely to be based on issues and it may even produce the first real political opposition in parliament, as opposed to an all-inclusive and highly ineffectual government in which every party has a seat on the executive table.

Now, Iraqi parties will go through a series of highly unpredictable negotiations to see which leader can gather the most seats in a majority coalition before the first session of parliament to form the government. This process is complicated in its own right, but Iraqi parties will have to navigate through regional politics too, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all invested in Iraqi politics, as is the United States. This has already started, with both Ambassador Brett McGurk and General Qasim Soleimani reaching out to Iraqi leaders to influence the government formation process.

Whatever happens next, Iraq will continue to prove its naysayers wrong and it will continue to surprise us. Source