We are rapidly approaching the seven-month mark since Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi acceded to office, somewhat of an accomplishment after the two previous prime-minister-designates failed to form a government. During these seven months, he presided over a number of tentative advances, countered with the continued, oftentimes violent, pro-Sadrist rallies and anti-government protests unsettling many regions.
One of these advances include a controversial election law passing in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s parliament, ratified by President Barham Salih on the 3rd of November 2020. This election law would shift Iraq’s electoral process with the aim of allowing more independents to run; whilst at one time Iraq was a singular electoral constituency, Iraq’s 18 provinces will now be divided into 83 constituencies using the Single Non-Transferable Vote electoral system. Previously, Iraqi political parties could run on unified lists (which had allowed parties to sweep all the seats in a province), now parties will be prevented from running on unified lists, meaning that voters will vote for individual candidates. Moreover, each constituency will have between 3 to 5 parliamentary seats, one of which will be reserved for female parliamentarians, making up 25% of the parliament in total, as per Iraq’s constitution.
Although push for the drafting of the electoral law came from the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the street demanding Iraq give citizens a greater voice, feedback on the electoral law has been mixed. Whilst in theory the new electoral law provides a greater platform for independents to run, therefore lessening the influence of political parties deemed by many as corrupt, a number of legal experts, intellectuals, and protesters claimed the law would not work as intended.
Indeed, once representatives are elected, they will have to form political parties to choose a prime minister. Analysts such as Mr. Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, suggest that parties will send candidates across Iraq to run as individuals, supporting them financially and otherwise, but that they will regroup when elections are over. Nonetheless, legislators, and in particular the Saairun coalition, made up mostly of Sadrists (followers of Muqtada al-Sadr), supported the new electoral law. Many argue that the law will benefit the Sadrists.
Another advance included Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s announcement in July that the next parliamentary elections would be pushed forwards a year to the 6th June 2021, ceding to demands from protesters. Nonetheless, protesters continue to take to the streets, now more than a year since the beginning of the protests, as many continue to face economic hardship, only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic causing international oil prices to drop, and the connected energy, health, and public service crisis. This is backed by a collective anger at the endemic corruption and nepotism plaguing the country. In the backdrop, attacks by fighters loyal to the Islamic State have stepped up in recent months, especially in the provinces of northern Kirkuk, Saladin, and eastern Diyala.
Despite the electoral law being passed in the Council of Representatives, a major roadblock continued to obstruct the advancement of elections, the passing of the electoral budget. Indeed, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has yet to receive the funds needed from the government to organise the elections, despite IHEC having prepared and submitted their budget as part of the government’s overall 2020-2021 budget process Parliamentarians appear to be stalling the process, in fear of the new electoral law giving an overwhelming benefit to the Sadrists. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has been encouraging parliamentarians to pass the budget, and claimed the electoral budget was at the top of the agenda, however, he does not appear to be having the cooperation he needs in this regard.
The work of IHEC has been hampered by this lack of funding. Much remains to be finalised, including biometric voter registration, an audit of electoral IT and result management systems, political party registration, and election security. However, without visibility in terms of a budget, IHEC’s preparation for the upcoming elections are impeded. It is imperative that Iraq’s parliamentarians work together and demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process by passing the budget so IHEC can finally begin finalising the preparations for the upcoming elections.