The false promise of early elections in Iraq

Without major reform, the 2021 parliamentary vote in Iraq will not bring the major changes the Iraqi people demand.

Iraq protests
A demonstrator carries an Iraqi flag as he walks near burning tires, during an anti-government protest in Najaf, Iraq January 12, 2020. [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

In October 2019, young Iraqis took to the streets en masse to demand the provision of essential services, proper management of the economy, an end to the corruption of the political elites and reforms of the political system. Despite the bloody crackdown by government forces and armed groups, in which hundreds of protesters were killed and tens of thousands injured, the protest movement persevered and managed to bring down the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi.

After a period of turmoil, where established political parties could not agree on a new prime minister, Iraq’s former head of the National Intelligence Service Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was appointed to the post.

The new cabinet has promised to work on significant reforms and has taken a series of decisions addressing economic, social and security issues. One of them was the decision to hold early elections in June 2021, approximately a year ahead of their scheduled date – as per the demand of the protesters.

While some have welcomed the announcement, many Iraqis are worried holding yet another election without major reforms, especially to laws that guide the electoral process, will not result in a free, fair and transparent vote in which independent candidates or new political forces would actually stand a chance.

Elections, but no democracy

In 2003, Iraqis were told they would be allowed to decide their own destiny. In 2005, a constitution was drafted which was supposed to lay the foundations of a democratic regime and citizens were finally allowed to vote in free elections, thus putting an end to authoritarian rule and injustice. Or so they thought.

However, what many Iraqis did not know at the time was the ethno-sectarian muhasasa system installed in Iraq by the United States and its allies would lead to the entrenchment of a corrupt political elite which itself would start abusing power.

The system, which divides cabinet and parliamentary seats along sectarian lines, was set up to supposedly accommodate historically marginalised groups. However, this system ended up allowing sectarian parties to entrench themselves and distribute among their elite government positions and state resources.

The parliamentary elections that have taken place since 2005 have not brought about the necessary change in power. Instead, they have only served to bring illusory legitimacy to a political elite that is increasingly corrupt, detached from the general population, and unaccountable.

The lack of change on the political scene, the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the country, and the growing record of electoral violations have left Iraqis disillusioned with the electoral process. The 2018 parliamentary vote saw the lowest turnout since 2005 – 44 percent. If there is no radical change in the political set-up of the country and relevant laws, the election planned for 2021 will probably see an even lower turnout.

Unfair elections

When the Iraqi protests erupted in October 2019, one of the main demands quickly became the passing of legislation to curb the power of establishment parties and the de-politicisation of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in order to allow for fair competition at the polls. But changes that have been made are inadequate while existing laws have too many loopholes or are too difficult to enforce to guarantee fair elections.

In December 2019, the parliament voted to amend the electoral law which now allows voters to choose individual candidates rather than party lists and establishes voting on a district, rather than provincial level. Although the amended law was meant to curb the power of establishment parties, protesters and experts have already criticised it for its dysfunctionality and loopholes.

For example, the borders of the electoral districts will be decided by the same powerful parties the law is supposed to weaken. They can draw the district map in such a way as to maintain ethno-sectarian divisions and maximise their votes.

In addition to the inadequate electoral law, there is another piece of legislation which serves the interest of the political elites: The political parties law. This law is supposed to regulate the sources of funding parties can have and the amount of money they can spend on their election campaigns.

Most establishment parties easily circumvent it by hiding their actual budgets and receive financial support from abroad in contravention of its provisions. Apart from that, powerful politicians regularly use government resources from the ministries and government institutions they run to fund their political parties. Thus, independent candidates cannot stand a chance against political groups that have both private funding and institutional support at hand.

An even bigger problem is some parties have their own well-established armed units despite the fact that they are illegal by law. These militias are serving their political interests and are often used to threaten political opponents. This has rendered any independent political engagement – be it organising protests or trying to put together an independent party – a potentially life-threatening endeavour.

This was clearly illustrated in the recent wave of murders targeting outspoken activists, advocates and political analysts. The armed wings of establishment parties have been accused of committing these murders. The fact that there have been no serious attempts to hold the perpetrators to account, only timid statements by those in power, suggests whoever is carrying out the assassinations has powerful backers within the government.

Iraq does not need another false election

If elections are held in Iraq under the same conditions again with no significant reforms and without proper protection for independent candidates to run unimpeded, the results will be no different than in previous polls. They will reaffirm the power of the establishment parties. These are the same people who criticised Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship but ended up reinstating it under the guise of democracy.

The only way forward for Iraq is through broad reforms that establish accountability and transparency. The political and electoral systems have to be amended in a way that enables independent candidates to run on an equal footing with the elites under the rule of law.

Only when people who actually represent the interests of Iraqis make it to the parliament and government, can we start re-establishing public trust in state institutions.

Given the powerful elites now in charge of the country will not willingly give up power, the only way to topple them is to keep pressure from the streets. There is already planning under way for a new wave of protests to mark the one-year anniversary of the October Revolution.

Iraqis have lost faith in their government and the governing elites. Continuing down the same path without any reform will bring nothing good for the country. In fact, it is in the best interest of the establishment to step aside and allow meaningful reform to take place. If not, the frustration and desperation of the people will only grow, and what comes next may be much bloodier than the October Revolution.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.