Iraq’s Democracy: The ‘Upcoming’ 2021 Elections

It is almost a year since mass anti-government protests erupted in Iraq, demanding a dismantling of Iraq’s political system, a system which has been marred by corruption and dogged with instability for years. These protests are ongoing, although demonstrations have lessened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The protests have resulted in the unfortunate deaths of approximately 700 of the protestors as well as over 20,000 injured, to date.

In November 2019, Iraq’s former Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned as a result of the ongoing protests. The Next Century Foundation welcomed Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power in May 2020. On 31st July 2020, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi called for early elections on 6th June 2021, as opposed to the existing due date of May 2022. Al-Kadhimi stated that “everything will be done to protect and ensure the success of these polls” and the United Nations praised the idea of early elections, arguing that they would “promote greater stability and democracy” in Iraq, something that has arguably been in short supply in Iraq’s most recent parliamentary elections.

Early elections were one of the demands called for by Iraq’s protestors, as well as the creation of a government of technocrats. However, the demonstrations were not the only driving force behind al-Kadhimi’s decision to call for early elections. Iraq has been plagued with a dire economic crisis as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in international oil prices collapsing. Iraq’s economy draws ninety percent of its budget from oil revenues and the pandemic has increased the fragility of both Iraq’s economy and government. Alongside this, Iraq is facing energy, health and public service crises and the need for a functional and efficient Iraq government is becoming ever more imperative. Indeed, al-Kadhimi is also facing severe opposition from pro-Iran militia groups, such as Kataib Hezbollah. These groups hold a strong presence on the streets. Over the years, they have entrenched themselves within the state.

The early elections have seemingly garnered support in almost all of the political blocs. Mohammed al-Halbousi, Speaker of Parliament, has even claimed to advocate elections earlier than the June 2021 date, but this is unlikely to happen. The most notable endorsement has come from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has backed al-Kadhimi’s plans and urged the government to follow through with early elections, stating that the snap elections are “not an end in and of itself, but a means of leading Iraq out of its current conundrum that is caused by political, economic, health, and services shortcomings”. These are the most powerful remarks al-Sistani has made on Iraq’s governance since 2003 and with them, al-Kadhimi has received the backing of the highest religious authority in Iraq. Since al-Sistani’s speech on 13 September 2020, the militia have been silent on the matter. This does not negate al-Kadhimi’s need to control the militia, indeed, it puts further pressure on him to attempt to control these groups.

Despite general support for snap elections, the Electoral Law, Independent High Electoral Commission and Iraqi Federal Supreme Court are themselves a “trilateral threat” to the June 2021 elections.

On 24 December 2019, prior to the announcement of early elections, a new draft electoral law was voted in. This electoral law was passed in response to pressure from the anti-government protests, with Shiite parliamentary blocs adopting the draft to the satisfaction of protestors and to the disquiet of the Kurdish blocs and some Sunni powers. The draft electoral law proposes a shift from proportional representation within governorates (the method that has been in place since 2005) to individual candidacy in smaller electoral constituencies. Votes will be counted electronically. The Kurdish blocs believe this method would deprive them of votes in mixed areas where the Kurds constitute a minority and the Sunni powers have voiced concern about electronic counting and the fear that this could be rigged.

The Office of the Speaker of Parliament has not to sent this draft electoral law to the President for ratification, due to continuing debates within the Iraqi Parliament on certain components of the law, such as the actual constituency boundaries. The absence of this action casts doubts on whether the new electoral law will even be in place in time for the early elections, which perpetuates the same lack of true democratic freedom for Iraq’s citizens that manifested itself within the last election. Many of the political blocs now agree that they passed the draft law because of the pressure from protestors.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party appears to be the only political bloc still voicing opposition to the timing of the early elections on the basis that the electoral law is not yet confirmed. They have accused al-Kadhimi of only calling the elections to please the protestors and to gain their support, rather than enacting them as a solution to the real issues facing Iraq. However, if no new electoral law is passed in time for the snap elections, then the 2021 elections will hold no significant weight. 

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) presents its own issues. On 15 December 2019, the Law of the IHEC was adopted, which approved the formation of the Board of Commissioners from among a draw of independent judges. However, debates about reform are continuing, and protestors have lobbied for only retired judges to sit on the Commission as opposed to serving judges. This is to ensure that no influence from political parties infiltrates through to the IHEC. The uncertainty surrounding the make-up of the offices of the IHEC hinders preparations for the early elections, casting another shadow on the hope for fair and independent elections in June 2021.

The Next Century Foundation has submitted a written statement to the 45th Session of the UN Human Rights Council to urge the elected representatives of the Republic of Iraq to take all necessary action to follow the guidance of the IHEC prior to the upcoming elections, and to cooperate closely with the IHEC on all matters related to the elections. The UN expressed their support for early elections after meeting with the IHEC in early September and has confirmed they will be overseeing the elections in order to ensure the elections are run in a free, transparent and fair way. It remains critical that the composition of the IHEC is confirmed soon.

Early elections would bring some promise and hope for a future Iraq government that is not ridden with political fragmentation, as well as an opportunity for Iraq’s citizens to express their own self-determination and free will through a democratic vote. However, the likelihood of free, equal and fair elections taking place on 6 June 2021 is minimal, largely due to the issues with the electoral law and the IHEC. Over the years, the faith that Iraq’s citizens once had in living in democracy has been eroded, with voter turnout of only 40% in the 2018 elections. The 2021 elections could be Iraq’s final chance to demonstrate its commitment to democracy.

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