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 the Badr Brigade. 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 now failed to send this draft electoral law to the President for ratification, which directly contravenes the Constitution which stipulates that after the adoption of legislation, it must be sent to the President immediately for him to either ratify it or return it to Parliament within 15 days. 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 dogged 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.

UN Oral Intervention: Britain’s treatment of Older Persons

The following has been prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officers Lauretta Garrard and Lara Miriam Ibrahim for submission by the Next Century Foundation as a statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council:

The Next Century Foundation is deeply concerned by the treatment of older persons during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK government has failed in their duty of care to prioritise the wellbeing of vulnerable older persons.

The lack of significant levels of COVID-19 testing in the initial stages of the outbreak, together with the inadequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment and the lack of coherent guidance for care home providers and staff has led to an unnecessarily high death toll for care home residents, who have made up 40% of all registered COVID-19 related deaths in the UK. The UK government has failed to make adequate provision to prevent the recurrence of such circumstances and has not taken concrete steps to hold care providers accountable who continue to fail to follow existing guidance.

This failure to protect the human rights of older people perpetuates a disturbing phenomenon of neglecting the health of older people in Britain. The UK government must look beyond rationing adequate treatment of older persons in order to meet financial constraints and should instead protect the human rights of those at greatest clinical risk.

We strongly urge member states of the United Nations to demonstrate their continued commitment to the promotion of the human rights of older persons. We hold the UK government accountable for both past and present human rights abuses in regard to its most vulnerable citizens. We urge them to adopt effective measures to monitor the treatment of older persons. Measures adopted should include providing sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and regular testing for care home staff and residents ahead of a likely second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak (something the UK government claims to do but in which it has failed to deliver).

An Update on HRH Princess Basmah’s Current Situation

*An update on Princess Basmah’s Current Situation and a respectful plea to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Princess Basmah to be discharged as quickly as possible.*

In June 2020, the Next Century Foundation appealed to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to release HRH Princess Basmah bint Saud and her daughter, Suhoud, from custody. This is a renewed, respectful plea for her release.

In order to provide brief context, HRH Princess Basmah was arrested in March 2019, along with her loyal and devoted 28-year old daughter. On this occasion, eight armed men took her into custody when she wanted to leave the country. Princess Basmah intended to go to Switzerland for medical treatment, however, she was suspected of fleeing Saudi Arabia.

At first, the state security accused her of procuring a false passport, but these charges were dropped quickly – now it is unclear why she is detained. Since March 2019, Princess Basmah has not been seen in public. She is held in the Al-Ha’ir prison (Riyadh) which is normally used for Jihadis in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Next Century Foundation reported that in April 2020 that Princess Basmah’s office had tweeted a statement to ask HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (her cousin) for mercy:

“I am currently being arbitrarily held at Al-Ha’ir prison without […] charges against my person. My health is deteriorating to an extent […] that could lead to my death. I have not received medical care or even response to the letters I dispatched from jail to the Royal Court. I was abducted without an explanation together with one of my daughters and thrown into prison. I am beseeching my uncle […] and my cousin […] to review my case, and to release me as I have done no wrong. My current health status is very critical.”

These tweets were taken down, as well as her website, and on 17 May 2020 Princess Basmah’s media office tweeted again to say:

“The direct and indirect weekly communications from Princess Basmah bint Saud with her family have been cut off completely since the tweet on April 17th, 2020. We have not received any information about her deteriorating health or legal status.”

Princess Basmah and her daughter were unfortunately not released during Ramadan despite these pleas. In addition, they have had no contact with relatives or any of the outside world since April 2020, marking five months since any updates on Princess Basmah’s critical health condition.

Other famous prisoners who are also thought to be in Al-Ha’ir prison such as Salman al-Awdah and Loujain Al-Hathloul have not been in communication with anyone outside of the prison since May and June, respectively. This has become incredibly concerning.

The Next Century Foundation respectfully pleas to HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to discharge HRH Princess Basmah bint Saud and her daughter, Suhoud, and allow them access to communications with the outside world.

HRH Princess Basmah represents little or no real threat to the status quo in Saudi Arabia. A revision of her case would undoubtedly be a kind gesture. Indeed, viewed from a Western perspective, she could be regarded as a credit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.