Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

All eyes on Iraq’s elections

With general elections scheduled for next May, attention is fixed on the race to the polls as Iraq continues to face some grim challenges, writes Salah Nasrawi


All eyes on Iraq’s elections
All eyes on Iraq’s elections

Iraq’s parliamentary elections are still seven months away, but the political factions vying for seats in the nation’s House of Representatives are already gearing up for the contest which could be a crucial test for the country’s stability.

However, while the vote is being closely watched in the region and beyond, many Iraqis believe that the elections’ outcome will not change much in Iraq’s dysfunctional political system.

There is speculation as to whether the elections will take place as the country continues to be mired in endless ethnic conflicts, political turmoil and security problems that could cast heavy shadows over the polls.

What is at stake in these parliamentary elections, the fourth since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, is that if they are delayed or marred by communal and political disputes Iraq could be in real danger in 2018.

The government has decided to hold the parliamentary elections on 15 May next year. The decision still needs to be approved by parliament and ratified by the president.

Parliamentary elections in Iraq are required to be held once every four years, and the candidates will be vying for the 328 seats in the nation’s parliament. In the event that a group or coalition wins a majority of the seats, it can then go on to form a government.

But the race in the last three elections proved to be sectarian between Iraq’s three main communities of the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds whose candidates run on ethnic and communal tickets.

The ramshackle coalition formed after the last elections in 2014 that included representatives from the three main communities is now in tatters, and many Iraqis are worried that their leaders will not be able to form a new alliance to govern until 2022.

Campaigning has not yet started, but a roadmap for the elections can be outlined that contains a broad spectrum of opportunities and challenges for the stakeholders.

Not surprisingly, the spotlight is on the country’s Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who has no serious rival and whose re-election is widely seen as all but inevitable.

Al-Abadi’s secret is that the country has been staggering from crisis to crisis, and it needs stability. His supporters argue that a string of successes under his premiership will make him the favourite for the job.

To be fair, the Iraqi security forces under Al-Abadi have succeeded in driving the Islamic State (IS) terror group out from the Iraqi cities that its militants had seized and held for more than three years.

Al-Abadi has also built an image of a strong nationalist leader by confronting Kurdish separatism in Iraq and retaking control of territory claimed by the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) in the country.

He has managed to mend fences with some of Iraq’s neighbours whose relations with Iraq soured under his predecessor Nouri Al-Maliki.

Al-Abadi’s candidacy has not been announced, but his ambition to stay in office for a second term is not a secret. One hurdle standing in the way of his nomination for re-election is Al-Maliki, the leader of Al-Abadi’s Dawa Party and the parliament’s largest bloc.

It is not clear yet if Al-Maliki will stand for election, or whether the party’s candidates will run on two tickets.

Beyond the party uncertainty, however, Al-Abadi faces other challenges. First, he must breathe new life into the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the main Shia bloc in the parliament. Over the past few years, this enfeebled Shia bloc has been chronically weak due to in-fighting within its groups.

Since the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, the country’s Shia majority has run Iraq through a coalition of religious and political groups.

Now the INA is being challenged by the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), an umbrella organisation for dozens of Shia paramilitary groups. Bolstered by a series of victories over IS militants, many of the main groups are now thinking of fielding candidates in the elections.

Al-Abadi has said that his government will not allow political parties with armed wings to take part in the elections. But the information available suggests that several PMF groups plan to take part in them.

The Iraqi media have reported that at least six powerful and Iran-backed militia groups have been discussing plans to field candidates in Baghdad and other mainly Shia-dominated southern provinces of Iraq.

Speculation is rife that the militia bloc will join an alliance with Al-Maliki to contest the incumbent prime minister. If this materialises, the coalition could receive many seats, giving it great sway in coalition-building.

Second, with his government’s relations with the Kurds in their autonomous region in tatters after he succeeded in foiling their plans for independence, Al-Abadi must resolve disputes with the Kurdistan Region Government.

In order to do so, he will have to convince the disheartened Kurdish parties that they can still be equal partners in his next government, while at the same time playing to his Shia base that will expect him to push back against rising Kurdish separatism.

Third, next year’s elections are a test of the Shia-led government’s ability to stabilise the Sunni provinces that were taken back from IS and start much-anticipated reconstruction in Sunni towns and cities.

In order to maintain stability, Al-Abadi must be able to form a national unity government that brings competent Sunni representatives into the next government instead of the leaders of the current Sunni groups in the parliament who have been out of touch with their constituencies.

Many Sunni political factions in the parliament have expressed their willingness to back Al-Abadi for re-election next year and said they would consider an alliance with him.

But the post-IS Sunni political landscape in Iraq has drastically changed, and Al-Abadi needs to team up with local Sunni groups rather than making deals with discredited and disconnected politicians working on the national level.

Many in Iraq still fear that the elections may be postponed as the political instability continues, driving the country into further chaos. Others consider the elections to be irrelevant and believe they will simply recycle the same political elites that have been in government over the past 14 years.

Beyond political stability and maintaining Iraq’s unity, what really matters for most Iraqis is a government that can rebuild their devastated nation, achieve national reconciliation, fight rampant corruption, reinvigorate the economy and provide basic services.

For optimists, Al-Abadi might be the person to deliver this. For pessimists, the elections could be a make or break point. As for realists, these will be more futile elections that will keep Iraq on a long path of uncertainty.

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