In response to the mass protest movement in 2019, Iraq is holding its early parliamentary election on Sunday amid calls for a boycott, increasing distrust towards the existing political system, and a crippled economy exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – but there is also a glimmer of hope.
An early election emerged as one of the central demands from the soon-turned-bloody demonstrations that swept across Baghdad and Iraq’s southern region in 2019.
With the newly introduced electoral laws, which would essentially shift the focus of candidates to smaller districts, the hope was to get more response from the previously alienated people, many of whom took part in the protests.
Yet many protesters have continued to argue that a lack of systematic reform away from the largely inept and corrupt system means there is little hope for any real change to address the issues that are to this day still paralysing Iraq – a country that has only recently emerged out of almost two decades of violence and conflict, from the 2003 US-led invasion to the fight against the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
Despite having advocated for electoral reforms and an early election, many of these protesters are now calling for a boycott of the vote, preluding a potential low voter turnout.
Many supporting the boycott have pointed to an electoral environment in which activists have been subject to targeted assassination campaigns, mainly attributed to pro-Iranian militia groups, and the unwillingness of the establishment to give up its power as their motivations for disengagement.
“You either stand up against the government and then later get killed, or vote for the same establishment that you took to the street to try to uproot – that is not a real choice,” said Ahmed al-Tannoury, a university student in the southern city of Basra who joined the mass protest in 2019.
“I’m not going to vote to give any sense of legitimisation to the status quo.”
Ahmed is not the only Iraqi boycotting the elections. Many protesters who once demanded systematic change in the government told Al Jazeera they were not headed to the ballot box.
These are, as categorised by some experts, “ideological boycotters” who are using their voice against the election in pursuit of the goal of de-legitimising the establishment.
“For them, boycott means a way to stay true to the goal of the October protests,” said Taif Alkhudary, an Iraqi politics researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). “Instead of voting, they want to stay out of the system and call for the complete overhaul of the system.”
Electoral boycotts aimed at de-legitimising the government, however, are not new in Iraq. There have been calls to avoid previous elections, which consequently had little effect in changing the endemic corruption among the governing elite.
“Boycotts have almost never been a defining factor to the Iraqi politics. Despite all the post-2003 boycotts, the government continued to govern,” explained Hamzed Hadad, a political analyst focusing on Iraq.
Despite a number of activists’ calling for voters to stay away from the ballot box, others formed their own political parties, some of which are participating in the upcoming election. The Imtidad Movement, for example, headed by Alaa al-Rikabi, is competing for seats in parliament, hoping to change the system from within.
As such, not everyone believes boycotts are not working in the protesters’ favour.
“At this point, you don’t have that many options, so it’s best to go out and vote so the reformists can have a seat on the table in order to reach tangible goals in the Iraqi society,” Rahman Aljebouri, a senior fellow at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, said.
‘No point in voting’
For many people who decided not to vote, however, the dominant factor is the sense of apathy resulting from years of a shuffling game within the establishment that yielded nominal positive changes.
Having gone through years of conflict and inadequate governance, many Iraqis have lost hope for the betterment of the country through the actions of the governing class.
“Nothing is going to change, no matter what the outcome the election is,” said Mustafa, a 24-year-old resident of Nasiriya, who asked only to be identified by his first name. “I don’t think anyone in the government is going to fix this country, so there is no point in me voting.”
The same power groups that benefitted from the post-2003 muhasasa system, the ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangement that has been a defining feature of Iraqi politics, will likely come out of the elections triumphant, according to professor Toby Dodge at LSE.
“These new laws still favour those with nationwide organisation with money and network,” said Dodge. “The big old parties that were responsible for creating the system in 2005 will continue to dominate the system.”
The defining factor
Yet a recent statement from Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia and the group’s most influential Muslim scholar, could change the picture.
“Although it is not without some shortcomings, it remains the best way to achieve a peaceful future and avoids the risk of falling into chaos and political obstruction,” al-Sistani’s statement reads.
For many politically apathetic Shia constituents, al-Sistani’s endorsement is likely to be the defining factor in deciding whether to vote, even if they do not believe real change could be attained from the ballot box.
“The voter turnout might be slightly higher than that of 2018, when it dipped below 50 percent, especially after al-Sistani’s statement,” said Hadad.
“Even though voter registration has already ended, al-Sistani’s encouragement could mean more people who had already registered but previously decided not to vote would eventually vote.”
Systemic change unlikely
Regardless of the voter turnout, however, many believe systematic change to the status quo is unlikely. Some analysts have said that the international community’s diminished attention on Iraq and the subsequent lack of pressure have given the government a de facto green light not to aim for drastic changes.
“There likely won’t be any direct confrontations between the establishment and the international society because as long as Iraq remains sort of stable as it is now, the world would probably be fine with it,” said Lahib Higel, a senior Iraq analyst at Crisis Group.
In this crisis-ridden country, no political party is surely projected to win a majority vote, which means forming a coalition government would take months.
The influential Sadrist movement, led by the nationalist icon Muqtada Sadr, who emerged in Iraqi politics as a vocal opponent of any foreign influence, and the Iran-aligned Fateh group are likely to lead in parliamentary seats. A subsequent compromise prime minister candidate, such as the current interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhami, is, therefore, a likely outcome.
Exactly what that would mean for Iraqis’ lives remains uncertain. The violently crushed Tishreen movement and the following targeted assassination campaign against anti-Iran critics have fundamentally changed Iraqis’ will and tactics to voice their grievances.
The protests might not come back in their original form, but without addressing the systematic issues, the persisting discontent might trigger another round of public anger, analysts have said.
“Anything could happen in Iraq – unless you suddenly get 24-hour electricity and a booming economy, anything could ignite protests,” Hadad said.