Mixed Messages: Concerns 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.

Release of Human Rights Activists in Egypt bodes well

In a promising advance, earlier this month on the 3rd December, Egypt released three human rights activists from southern Cairo’s Tora prison following an international campaign on their behalf. The three men, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), had been detained in early November after a public meeting with 13 foreign diplomats and ambassadors, including representatives from the U.K., Germany, and Canada, to discuss human rights in the country, leading to charges of spreading false news, alongside charges of joining a terror group. The three men released included EIPR Executive Director Gasser Abdel-Razek, Criminal Justice Director Karim Ennarah, and Administrative Director Mohamed Basheer. In a statement, EIPR said that they were now either home or on their way home. However, a gender rights researcher for EIPR, Patrick George Zaky, remains behind bars since his arrest in February, when he visited Cairo from Bologna where he was completing a Master’s degree.

EIPR is a renowned Egyptian human rights group, operating in a context where many organisations have had to stop working in the face of a sustained crackdown on independent organisations by Egypt’s government under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Indeed, EIPR has worked since 2002 with the aim of strengthening and protecting basic rights and freedoms in Egypt through research, advocacy, and the support of litigation. They also document civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence, and discrimination against religious minorities and women.

However, human rights advocates are not the only the only group of individuals targeted under President El-Sisi. Others targeted include Islamist political opponents, pro-democracy activists, journalists, and online critics. In fact, the same day Gasser Abdel-Razek appeared before a prosecutor for questioning, the 23rd November, judicial authorities added opposition politician Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh, activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, and 25 others to a terrorism watch list for five years without charging them with a criminal offence or giving them an opportunity to challenge the evidence.

Nonetheless, the release of the EIPR activists and the October release of satirical blogger Shadi Abu Zeid after two and a half years in detention (also arrested for spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group) are encouraging advances. These releases demonstrate that President El-Sisi’s government is responsive to international pressure. With the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing her concern at the “profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society” alongside concerns voiced by traditional allies of Egypt such as the United Kingdom and the United States, there is clearly international attention on the matter. In fact, Italian, Irish, and other ambassadors had sent letters to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry asking for the release of the EIPR staff, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab discussed the matter with Minister Shoukry.

On the other hand, whilst France had initially joined those who had voiced criticism about the arrests of the EIPR activists, on Monday 7th December at a meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and President El-Sisi at the Palais de l’Elysée in Paris, President Macron stated that defence and commercial ties would be maintained with Egypt and future French arms sales to Egypt would go ahead, as cooperation between the two countries was paramount in the struggle against terrorism and would contribute to regional stability. This statement was met with fierce criticism from liberal and left-wing French politicians over concerns about human rights violations.

However, President Macron affirmed at a joint press conference that: “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights], it is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism”. Indeed, France views the relationship with Egypt as crucial to the containment of armed insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula and militias that oppose General Haftar in Libya. Nevertheless, French officials stressed that President Macron had brought up the issue of human rights in private with President El-Sisi.

Despite the encouraging release of the activists, criminal charges against them have not been dropped, and Cairo’s Third Circuit Terrorism Court ordered the temporary freezing of all three men’s personal assets, property, and bank accounts. Hossam Bahgat, the founder and former director of EIPR, has had his assets frozen for years, and has been banned from leaving Egypt. Additionally, rights groups estimate that there are still as many as 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. Whilst the release is a move in the right direction by President El-Sisi, there is still room for more progress in the respect of the important contributions of civil society in Egypt, and the continued release of more detainees, especially given the current risk prisoners face in crowded Egyptian prisons where few physical distancing measures are in place. A positive next step could include the release of EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaky, and more of his activist colleagues.

Iraq: Passing the Electoral Budget is now Imperative

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.

Things go from Bad to Worse in China

Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris explores how we can all take action in response to China’s atrocious treatment of the Uighurs and behaviour over Hong Kong in his weekly podcast: Issues of the Week

China’s treatment of the Uighurs and its behaviour over Hong Kong demands a response. Governments do nothing but we can take action. We could start by boycotting Chinese goods. Not easy. Amazon fails to put countries of origin on the goods it markets. A little campaign to force Amazon to do so would do no harm – and for those environmentally inclined would enable us to buy goods without so many air miles (should Amazon comply). One way to twist Amazon’s arm would be to buy our books elsewhere. Here are a few alternative book platforms listed by country:

U.K.

Bookshop – supporting local bookshops; Hive – books, eBooks; Biblio – rare, special, and used books; Alibris – books, textbooks, movies, music; Big Green Bookshop; Eurospan Bookstore; AbeBooks.co.uk

U.S.

Bookshop – supporting local bookshops; Biblio – rare, special, and used books; Alibris – books, textbooks, movies, music; Indie Bound – independent bookshops in U.S.; Thrift Books – second hand books; Book Outlet; Libro – Audiobooks through local bookstores; Overdrive – audiobooks through your local library; Hoopla – borrow movies, eBooks, music with your library card

Anglo-American

World of Books

European

Eurospan Bookstore; Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware

France

Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Recyclivre – secondhand books; Label Emmaus – secondhand books and other items; La Librarie – books from local bookshops; Place des Libraries – books from local bookshops; Libraries Independentes – books from local bookshops

Canada

Indigo – books, toys, wellness, homeware, fashion, electronics; AbeBooks.com; mcnallyrobinson.com

Worldwide

Better World Books; Book Depository; Book Mooch – book exchange; Wordery; eBooks

Australia & New Zealand

Biblio New Zealand – rare, special, and used books; Biblio Australia – rare, special, and used books; AbeBooks.com; Boomerang Books – independent bookstore; QBD Books; Dymocks

Non-Book Platforms

France

Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores; Label Emmaus – second hand books and other items

Europe

Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores

Canada

Indigo – books, toys, wellness, homeware, fashion, electronics

Worldwide

Bonanza – various products available; Etsy – independent sellers; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores

COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip: A Disaster in the Making

With 754 new coronavirus infections reported in the Gaza strip on this Friday, the highest single-day total as of yet, COVID-19 appears to be taking a hold on the densely inhabited region (and testing is sparse in Gaza so the real figure will likely be far higher). Until now, Gaza was relatively spared from the successive waves of infections. The situation, however, may end up setting off a ticking time bomb in Gaza as the atrocious living conditions of many Gazans are ideal for disease spread with disastrous swiftness.

In this poignant video all statistics quoted are well sourced and verified. The Palestine Trauma Centre funds and runs much needed psychosocial support and therapeutic projects in the Gaza Strip. If you wish to support the work they do in Gaza, you can do so through their JustGiving appeal page, and their friends invite you to attend their online Yoga meditation on Saturday the 28th of November from 10:00 – 11:45 am GMT, detailed on their JustGiving page.

Indeed, in Gaza there are only 87 ICU beds with ventilators for 2 million people, and many are already occupied – with a capacity to admit and treat 3,234 COVID-19 cases faced with a total of 4,374 active cases (as of the 20th of November), an increasing number of severe cases, and a dearth of personal protective equipment (PPE), this capacity will rapidly be strained. In fact, the head of the European Gaza Hospital, Yousuf Alaqqad, said on Saturday that the hospital could announce at any time its inability to receive new cases, as the hospital and adjacent school used as a quarantine centre are now full. Moreover, electricity shortages and expensive fuel costs for generators are forcing doctors to choose to allocate electricity to patients most in need, such as choosing between running ventilators or lighting up surgery rooms. The difficult issue of triage is one that many Gazan healthcare professionals are now having to face.

The pandemic is only compounding an already dire public health crisis, with the 13-year blockade having made many treatments in Gaza unavailable, providing a difficult choice for the 9000 vulnerable patients each year that need Israel’s exit permits to leave Gaza for treatment, as they risk being infected with COVID-19 when they leave, or risk life-threatening conditions if they remain untreated. If they do leave Gaza for treatment, the mandatory isolation centres upon their return are often underequipped, providing additional risks of infection. The dense living situation in Gaza is also complicating self-quarantine and social distancing conditions, as well as the lack of PPE (only 42% of those that need it can afford or have access to PPE). Economic precarity and the lack of savings after years of hardship for many Gazans also makes isolation impossible.

Self-isolation or not, two successive lockdowns have had their toll on the already precarious economic conditions of many Palestinians. Workers in Gaza have seen their income fall by almost 90% since the start of the pandemic, and tens of thousands have lost their employment. Indeed, poverty rates have been predicted to rise by at least 10% by the World Bank because of the pandemic and almost 60% of Gazans are unable to afford basic food, medicine and supplies, especially as international aid to Gaza has been severely cut in recent years.

Children have also acutely suffered the effects of the lockdown; school closures and the introduction of remote learning has been a challenge for many families when faced with regular power cuts, patchy internet, and a lack of educational resources. Moreover, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) funding that runs the majority of schools, health services and humanitarian aid to Palestinians with refugee status is running dry – it now faces a $70 million funding shortfall and will be unable to pay its staff full salaries in November and December. Aside from the economic impact on many staffers (UNRWA is the main employer in Gaza after the local authorities) and the impact on Palestinian refugees, 80-90% of whom rely on the UNRWA for assistance, many children will see further disruptions in their learning. On top of this, 86% of Palestinian children and adolescents already suffer from symptoms of PTSD as a consequence of the ongoing conflict.

This impact is not only limited to children – the conflict and insecurity has led to 82% of Gazans manifesting signs of mental health issues, such as anxiety and stress as they worry about their inability to support and feed their families. However, 65% are unaware of how to access mental health and psychosocial support services. As economic insecurity and the pandemic worsens with winter’s approach, more Gazans will have to make the impossible choice between feeding their families or buying medicine for sick relatives, especially following the escalation of violence since August, and a tightened blockade by Israel.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Joe Biden: the future of US-Myanmar Relations

The success of President-elect Joe Biden in the U.S. presidential elections mirrors an eerily similar situation in Myanmar; the 8th of November marked the second election in Myanmar since the end of military rule in 2015 and final results are still trickling in. Nonetheless, a clear winner emerged. Like in the United States, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s flagship party, appear to have won an absolute majority of seats in parliament and with this, they will begin their second five-year term in power.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has most likely mixed feelings about the U.S. elections; on one hand, like President-elect Biden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also faces an opponent unwilling to concede defeat. The army-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), refuses to accept her victory, calling for a military-managed re-run of the election – they accuse the NLD of bribing voters and electoral fraud. Mr. Biden as president could also put Myanmar back on the map in terms of foreign policy (President Trump notoriously responded with “where is that?” when a Rohingya refugee asked about his plan to help return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar) and economic engagement, as Myanmar continues to flourish economically after decades in isolation.

However, being back on the map may not be all it’s cracked out to be; Myanmar’s dismal human rights record and genocidal tendencies have been harshly criticised and even sanctioned by many states, and Mr. Biden may decide to shift the United States back to the role of the “world’s policeman”. However, this is unlikely to be more than a mild reprimand in the face of more pressing U.S. domestic issues such as the global pandemic, attempts to keep a shaky economy afloat, and a deepening political polarisation. A mixed bag, but one that is unlikely to change much in Myanmar’s political landscape.