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14 October 2021

Iraq’s election shows a society fraying at the edges

Turnout hit a record low as opinion polls suggest many Iraqis have lost trust in government, religious institutions and each other.

By Ben van der Merwe

Populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged victorious in Iraq’s 10 October parliamentary elections, a contest marred by boycotts and apathy. It is the first time Iraqis have gone to the polls since the government was toppled by mass protests in 2019.

Just 41 per cent of registered voters participated, the lowest turnout in an Iraqi parliamentary election since the 2003 US-led invasion. Low turnout has sapped hopes of a significant breakthrough for the protest-linked Emtidad Movement, which has reportedly won eight seats.

The political wing of Iraq’s powerful Iranian-backed militias, the Fatah Alliance, has lost two-thirds of its seats in the council of representatives, down from 48 to 16. The party’s leader has rejected the results as “a scam”.

The Sadrist Movement is expected to win 73 seats, giving Al-Sadr strong leverage in the coming negotiations.

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Al-Sadr has vocally opposed Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, while also benefiting from his past as an anti-US insurgent. Whether he will be able to transform his election victory into office will depend on the outcome of coalition negotiations.

“At the end of the day, Sadr’s going to have to come to the negotiating table,” said Renad Mansour, project director of Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative. “Not only does he not have an outright majority, but there’s also the extent to which Sadr will have to back down given the use of coercion and violence from some of these armed groups if he goes too far.”

Why was turnout so low?

Electoral reforms intended to benefit independent candidates and improve transparency have failed to inspire Iraqis’ confidence in the country’s notoriously sectarian and patrimonial political system.

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Power to the people

The last election in 2018 was marred by both a then-record low turnout (44 per cent) and allegations of voter fraud. Since then, the share of Iraqis that say they have confidence in the government has fallen from 42 per cent to 22 per cent. Among the country’s Shia majority, long a bastion of support for the post-Saddam Hussein regime, the figure has fallen to just 17 per cent.

Iraqi society is fraying at the edges
Share of Iraqis who...
Source: Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies

Since 2014, Iraq’s economy has been battered by a three-year war with Islamic State (IS) and a sharp fall in global energy prices. Oil and gas account for 90 per cent of the Iraqi government’s revenues and over 57 per cent of GDP.

During the first half of 2020, pandemic-related restrictions and a further collapse in energy prices helped to push 7 per cent of Iraqis into poverty, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (Unami).

In May, a survey by IIACSS, the Iraqi arm of US-based pollster Gallup, found that only 8 per cent of Iraqis reported having made savings in the past year, compared with 38 per cent who said they had spent more than they earned.

In 2019, public anger over unemployment and poor public service provision exploded into a wave of mass protests, which were met with a crackdown by Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias.

Between October 2019 and April 2020, Unami recorded 487 deaths and 7,715 injuries relating to the protests. As of May, Unami had also recorded 32 targeted assassinations of protesters and critics of the government. A further 20 have been abducted, their whereabouts unknown. No culprits have so far been brought to justice, with Unami describing the situation as one of “impunity”.

“In the early days after 2003, elites were able to build patronage networks using public funds, but Iraq has a very rapidly growing population,” said Mansour. “They’re unable to provide as much these days because there’s just more Iraqis, so at every election turnout goes lower and lower.

“They’ve also lost a lot of ideational power – they can’t mobilise voters with sectarian or anti-corruption rhetoric because many people simply don’t believe them anymore. As they lose both economic and ideological power, they’re left with few choices other than to try and stop potential threats by violence.”

A fragile security situation

The months leading up to election day were marred by a spate of attacks by IS, as well as Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish and Yazidi militants. The attacks by Turkey are reported to have killed between 65 and 125 Iraqi civilians since 2015.

Since 2018, the share of Iraqis describing the status of security in the country as “good” has fallen from 81 per cent to 38 per cent, including just 27 per cent of Kurds.

The growing role of armed groups in Iraq has also been a topic of concern: 59 per cent of Iraqis see non-state militias as having more control over domestic politics than the Iraqi state itself. Militias backed by Iran have played a key role in the government’s violent crackdown on protesters, including being deployed as snipers to fire on demonstrators. Iraqi attitudes towards Iran have nosedived. The share of Iraqis having a favourable view of their neighbour has fallen from 70 per cent in 2017 to just 15 per cent in 2020. 

“People certainly knew that these guys killing demonstrators were backed by Iran, so of course this significantly contributed to a shift in their perception towards Iran,” Mera Bakr, an Erbil-based Iraqi politics and security researcher, told the New Statesman.

Despite years of sectarian politics and bloodshed, Iraqi nationalism remains a potent force. Sixty-seven per cent of Iraq’s Shias and 54 per cent of Sunnis identify as “Iraqi above all”, according to the IIACSS survey.

“Across the country, people say they want an independent Iraq,” said Bakr. “For many of them, that does not mean they don’t want to be friends with the US. They want an Iraq that stands for the people, that’s not a puppet of Iran or the US.”

[See also: Massacred by Islamic State, Yazidis now face Turkish airstrikes]

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