Mixed Messages: Concerns mount as Early Elections are abandoned in Iraq

Talk of parliamentary elections in Iraq has as of yet revolved around one date: the 6th of June 2021. This date has been highlighted as a shining beacon in the continued turbulence and upheaval that has characterised much of recent politics in Iraq. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been at the forefront of those reiterating that elections would be held on the 6th of June, committing to his promise of early elections and a reformed electoral law in response to the demands of anti-government protests that have rocked the country since October 2019. Indeed, early elections would bring the prospect of reforms closer, reforms that are desperately needed to counteract political instability and allow the people of Iraq to reap the benefits of what will hopefully ensue; much needed economic and social stability.

However the “three Iraqi presidencies”, President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, and Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi have just met the The Independent High Electoral Commission in Iraq who have informed them that they cannot meet the 6th June date. Indeed they say they will not be ready until “after September”. Further meetings are now to be held in which the political parties will be represented in order to get everyone’s agreement to a date. The most probable date now seems to be 30 October 2021.

In reality, the majority of actors making up the political fabric of Iraq were concerned about, and even opposed to, the prospect of early elections, which was what made it highly unlikely that elections could go ahead as planned in June. The Kurdish political leadership were apprehensive about early elections; the prospect of swift elections is not perceived to favour established Kurdish parties. This is in part due to the tensions both within the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The failure of rapprochement between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is another factor that shows the unresolved internal issues Kurds are dealing with and that hindered political support for early elections. Nonetheless, Kurdish parties did come together to agree on the unsuitability of June elections. Mohammed Shakir, a member of Parliament from the KDP, said in December that there was “consensus among most political blocs to postpone elections until October 30, 2021”. Shakir highlighted the fact that Parliament does have the power to establish the date of the elections, and must agree to dissolve itself before the elections occur, possibly foreshadowing a tense standoff between demonstrators in Iraq’s streets demanding early elections and the parliamentarians intended to serve them.

Sunni political leadership were also anxious about the June elections in the face of their disunity and disarray. There are two great Sunni blocks: The first is backed by millionaire former Saddam loyalist, Khamis al-Khanjar. The second block is led by the parliament speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi. Currently there is jockeying for power between those loyal to the speaker of parliament Mohamed al-Halbousi and those supporting the Sunni front that has formed in the House of Representatives seeking to oust al-Halbousi, backed by Khamis al-Khanjar. Other Sunni power blocs that are being courted by these two big players are those nominally headed by Osama al-Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi respectively. Thus, al-Halbousi and much of the Sunni establishment have been pushing for delayed elections, with the fear that early elections would cause Sunni parties to lose votes in the face of the strong front of Muqtada al-Sadr’s loyalists.

Indeed, Muqtada al-Sadr and his loyalists appear to have been the only actors set to benefit from early elections. The substantial mobilisation of the Sadrist movement in the demonstrations over the past year, and the momentum they gained, combined with a new electoral law that would likely increase the number of seats they hold in parliament, make the Sadrist a force to be reckoned with, and feared, by other political groups that are not as organised. With the new electoral law distributing seats more widely in smaller districts, this is believed to advantage the Sadrists, who can mobilise their strong support in rural areas and poor, densely populated regions, in part through a strong network of offices run be devoted loyalists applying and distributing information and instructions from al-Sadr. Numerous members of parliament and politicians have voiced that they believe the Sadrist movement are the biggest winners of the new law. In fact, only a few days after the law passed, al-Sadr shifted from saying he would not participate in the elections to declaring not only that he would run, but also that he was planning to win the majority needed for the premiership. Alongside his supporters’ mobilisation in rallies, their clashes with anti-government protesters, and the increasing number of television appearances by Sadrist MPs promoting voting in the elections, it appears that the Sadrists are putting substantial effort into trying to win the election.

Despite being anticipated to do well in the elections, problems will arise for the Sadrists in taking the lead in forming a Cabinet. Without forming alliances with other political forces Sadrists will have trouble obtaining a parliamentary majority, and with many political parties uncomfortable handing over crucial positions in the Iraq government to Sadrists, this will be difficult.

Nonetheless, these Sadrist efforts have also left mainstream Shia political leadership such as Hashd al-Shabi worried about the outcome of the election. Indeed, the disunity between Shia groups also makes it unlikely that they will be able to stand strong against the Sadrists, in addition to low voter turnout for Shia parties stemming from younger voters losing confidence in the election process. This has led many groups to insist on later elections. In fact, a member of parliament of the State of Law Coalition alluded to widespread support of postponed elections, saying that “the general attitude of the political power is that [elections] will be in early 2022, when the current electoral cycle ends”. Some groups have also suggested that if early elections go ahead as planned, they could boycott them; In late November, the Nasr Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, claimed they were considering a “popular and political” boycott of early elections if “fraud and interference” occurs.

This reasoning has often been used by those who did not wish the June elections to go ahead; the risk of fraud and interference. In early December, a representative from the Wataniya Alliance warned against holding elections that could not be protected against interference, calling for the end of “uncontrolled weapons” and “political sectarianism and quotas”. He also questioned the UN’s capacity to supervise the election in “areas under the control of militias” (in reality – in the NCF’s experience, the United Nations has never ever supervised elections in Iraq much beyond the Green Zone and even there, in regard to the count, its efforts have often been more nominal than substantive, their real skill being in supporting rather than monitoring the electoral process). The possibility of interference is incontestably real. Although security has improved in many parts of Iraq, both international and local interference and the possible implications on the holding of free and fair elections are big concerns for the upcoming elections.

A number of parties have also alluded to the Iraq Higher Election Committee’s (IHEC) issues in preparing for the elections as a justification for support for postponed elections. This is also not untrue; IHEC has had notorious difficulties in preparing for the elections. It was only in December that an electoral budget passed through parliament, and with still no formal electoral operational plan and timeline, preparations have been stalling. Several of the biggest challenges for IHEC remain including the introduction of biometric voting, interference, and ensuring voter security.

Biometric voting is amongst the most discussed topics of the elections. Indeed, biometric voting registration has as yet only been used in a handful of countries, and the logistical hurdles in collecting the biometric data of all voting-age citizens who wish to do so and distributing voter cards in Iraq’s tumultuous environment appear close to unsurmountable. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) noted that whilst IHEC operates 1,076 voter registration centres in the country, the weekly average of biometric voter registrations was only 7,200, with 44,000 cards distributed weekly; at that rate, only a further 2% of the 11.3 million voters who do not yet have biometric cards will have them distributed before June 2021. Fraud is also a big concern with biometric voting, including the use of electronic ballots and proxy voting, with fears of wide-scale buying of votes.

Voter security is also a central issue, although often overlooked. Whilst the security situation in a number of areas of Iraq has improved, it is important not to neglect the instability and potential for violence or voter intimidation that could occur during elections, and the repercussions that this would have on the progression of free and fair elections. Some of the areas of greatest concern at the moment are Anbar Province, Ninewa, Northern Baghdad, and more generally north western Iraq, where there is a high risk of militia groups intimidating voters. For example, in Ninewa, Kurdish voters registered in Mosul may fear for their lives when attempting to vote. Constituencies in northern Baghdad may also be at risk of intimidation from groups such as Heshd al-Shabi (or the Popular Mobilization Forces – PMF) attempting to keep Sunni voters from voting (as NCF observers noted was the case in the last election). Further, in most of these regions, international observers will not be able to monitor the election (historically the Next Century Foundation has been the only international group to attempt to monitor extensively in the interior). In these areas and in Iraq as a whole, it is therefore imperative for all parties and groups to allow free and fair elections to occur. Concrete dialogue on the practicalities of ensuring voter security should also be a priority.

Whilst these reasonings are indisputably valid and should take centre stage in the discussions surrounding the preparation for elections, they should not be used merely as cover for the alleged infeasibility of early elections. Elections will in most likelihood be delayed until October 30th, if not later, due to fierce lobbying of parties unwilling to allow the Sadrists to gain an electoral advantage, but it is important that the pertinent issues of biometric voting, voter security, and interference are actually addressed and not used merely as convenient excuses for delayed elections. Another minor but important issue is that the eleven member federal court that ratifies the election result only has nine members and the vacant seats must be filled if elections are to be held (and there are no nominations as yet and no consensus as to who those two judges should be). Early elections or not, the importance of these issues in ensuring that the citizens of Iraq can vote in free and fair elections cannot be overstated. They will lay the foundations of the legitimacy of the next governments of Iraq, and thus dictate its prospects of political stability for years to come.

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