Why Iraq's surprising election doesn't signal major changes

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An Iraqi woman prepares to cast her vote in the country’s parliamentary elections in Baghdad on Saturday. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Preliminary results for Iraq’s recent round of elections are in, and keeping with previous years, there are many surprises. Contradicting most polling data and analysts’ predictions, incumbent prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s alliance only came in third, after Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party and the Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri, a paramilitary leader close to Iran.

Dissecting these results, we can see how voters are increasingly disillusioned with Iraq’s dysfunctional politics and the status quo. However, the elections also illuminate the flaws in the electoral system and the unwieldy government formation process. Without significant modifications to these institutions, there is little reason to expect any major changes in the coming period.

What do the results tell us about Iraqis?

The election results illuminate some recurring as well as new trends.

First, this election reaffirmed that — despite years of stereotyping to the contrary — many Iraqis are comfortable voting for alliances headed by candidates of different ethno-sectarian communities or for nonsectarian platforms. In 2010, the Iraqiya bloc was headed by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite candidate who won comfortable majorities in Sunni provinces.

Abadi is a member of a staunchly Shiite Islamist party and headed a diverse electoral alliance. His alliance won the largest number of seats in Nineveh, a majority Sunni province. Elsewhere, voters in Najaf — one of the world’s most important Islamic cities — appear to have elected a female member of the Communist Party to the next parliament.

Second, Iraqis are increasingly unimpressed with strongmen. In 2010, Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki ran highly personalized electoral campaigns, arguing that only they could bring order to the country. Large numbers of voters appeared convinced, awarding Maliki 622,000 votes and Allawi 407,000. In 2014, those same candidates won 721,000 and 229,000 votes.

However, in 2018, according to the preliminary results, not a single candidate has passed the 100,000-vote mark, including those who took credit for the victory against the Islamic State. Maliki lost approximately 85 percent of his support compared with the 2014 elections. That is an incredible fall from grace for a former prime minister of eight years who now may not even have a spot in the new government. Hundreds of Iraqis gathered in central Baghdad on Sunday night, chanting “Bye-bye, Maliki.” Iraqis seem to have grown weary of politicians who demand mass support from the people.

Third, the results again demonstrate Iran’s limited popular support in the country. Only two electoral alliances — the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition — had significant Iranian support. Together, they won approximately 70 seats (or just over 20 percent). But even that may overstate Iran’s support, as neither alliance explicitly campaigned on a pro-Iranian platform, focusing primarily on government reform. Most other alliances were hostile to Iran or ambivalent to its interests.

What do the results tell us about the electoral process?

The electoral results also reveal significant flaws in Iraq’s electoral process. For one, Iraq’s electoral framework is highly problematic. Members of the hypothetically independent electoral commission are nominated by the country’s main parties, which ensure that the existing political elite remains firmly in control over who can access the hallways of power. Campaign rules, including party finance rules, are deliberately lax and rarely applied.

Even individuals who have been convicted of or admitted to corruption have been allowed to participate in the elections unhindered. Voter intimidation, sometimes through violence, occurs without any major repercussions from the commission or the courts.  That may partially explain some of the more obscene electoral results that we have seen, including that Maliki, who at the end of his eight-year term lost a third of the country to a terrorist organization, won more personal votes than Abadi, who brought the country back from the brink in four short years.

Finally, the high abstention rate and grass-roots campaign to boycott elections highlight Iraqis’ waning confidence in their political system. The 2018 election’s main candidates are drawn from the same group of individuals who, as I describe in my book, have been mismanaging the country for the past 15 years. Meanwhile, the general population continues to suffer from failing hospitals, schools, electricity and other basic services.

As a result, only 44 percent of eligible voters took part in the elections — whereas 80 percent and 60 percent participated in the 2005 and 2014 elections respectively. Evidence suggests the political elites will shrug off the boycott and carry on, unless there is real political change that introduces strengthened accountability mechanisms.

What might be next?

The long and convoluted process of forming the next government will begin after the electoral results are confirmed. Immediately following the certification, electoral alliances are invited to form larger parliamentary blocs to form a government. But such a system opens up an unlimited number of possibilities, as parts of individual coalitions can split up and join other coalitions. There are no penalties for floor crossing or for substantive incoherence. In previous cycles, individual politicians bartered for positions for months, ignoring campaign promises and voters’ priorities.

The government formation process must also resolve whether to form yet another national unity government or a parliamentary majority. The many small parties elected in this round will make it nearly impossible for all to be represented in a unity government.

But previous negotiations also suggest that none of the main coalitions are likely to accept exclusion from government. Opposition parties have significant trouble attracting attention and are often eliminated from politics altogether from one cycle to the next. In contrast, the benefits of a governmental portfolio are obvious: access to a platform and funds to finance lifestyles outside Iraq and future electoral campaigns.

This could mean yet another unwieldy government that brings together more than a dozen parties and alliances in which most elected officials lack political platforms or substantive objectives.

Any attempt to address corruption will again probably be obstructed by an incoherent government populated by ministers with little to no incentive to engage in real change. Despite all the electoral surprises, Iraq’s next government is likely to be just as incapable of delivering change as in the past.

Zaid Al-Ali  is the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy” (Yale University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter at @zalali