The government’s decision to hold early elections was made in response to demands by the October 2019 protest movement but no major change is expected as an outcome. Despite this, the elections will likely be boycotted by the same activists who called for them. The main rivalry exists between the political elite which will seek to defend the current status quo and the parties that emerged from widespread protests demanding political change. However, these emerging parties do not have access to the same financial, electoral, or political resources as the larger parties, diminishing their prospects for success.
October 2019 Protests
Large anti-government demonstrations erupted in Baghdad and across southern Iraq over widespread corruption, high levels of unemployment, and the government’s inability to provide basic services. The protests led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in December 2019. Over 600 protesters and activists have been killed since. The protest movement lacked leadership and direction. The parties that emerged from the movement have decided to boycott the elections.
Over 3,000 candidates have registered in the elections, a drop from the 7,178 registered candidates in the 2018 elections. New and smaller electoral districts have been set up this time, another demand of the protest movement, but this will lead to larger parties focusing on the districts they can win. It may deter activists and smaller party leaders from running, out of fear that they are easier to target in smaller communities.
Since October 2019, attacks targeting activists have been widespread across the country. The killing of Karbala-based activist Ehab al-Wazni led to the protest political parties declaring a boycott of the elections. The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) also joined the boycott in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the elections.
Voter turnout is expected to be as low as 20 per cent given the boycotts and disillusionment among Iraqis. This could change if Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issues a statement as he did in 2005, encouraging people to vote. In 2018, no statement was made, leading to a 44.5 per cent voter turnout.
If both the protest parties and the public boycott the elections, the competition will lie between the main rival political parties, making the preservation of the status quo the most likely outcome. The main influential political parties are explored below, categorized by sect and in alphabetical order.
The Most Influential Political Parties
Main Shia Parties
- The Fatah alliance led by Hadi Al-Amiri, also the leader of the Badr Organization. The alliance is the second major Shia coalition and is the political arm of pro-Iranian militia groups.
- The alliance has lost popularity among Shia Iraqis, particularly those involved in the protests, since 2018 as the militia groups have been responsible for killing activists and attacking US bases in the country. Fatah is pursuing Iran’s agenda and risks causing further instability and tension with the attacks it carries out.
- The militia components of the alliance are powerful players in the Iraqi deep state. Their political and military resources, together with Iran’s backing, will help them buy votes and intimidate other candidates.
NATIONAL POWER OF THE STATE COALITION
- The coalition is formed by the head of the National Wisdom Movement, cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, and former Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. The coalition is tactical, with no common goals, and may collapse after the elections.
- No common strategy has been announced but the alliance has called for bringing the militia groups under the control of the Iraqi state, making it a rival to the Fatah alliance.
- The coalition enjoys good relations with Sadr and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union (PUK), increasing the likelihood of cooperation after the elections.
- The coalition is led by Muqtada al-Sadr and is one of the most popular and powerful Shia parties in Iraq. In 2018, Sairoon won the largest number of seats in parliament.
- Sadr rose in popularity for waging a violent campaign against the US invasion but has since reinvented himself as a defender of the working-class Shiites. His main popularity base lies with the poorest Shia areas of the country.
- Low voter turnout this year could be favourable for Sadr who is expected to retain the majority of seats in parliament, but a loss is also possible.
- Sadr controls the health and electricity ministries, and his popularity has been somewhat tarnished by two deadly hospital fires this year. In 2020, Sadr withdrew his support for the protest movement, alienating this segment of voters.
- Sadr’s decisions lack clear direction, and it is difficult to anticipate what policies will be put into place after the elections. His main priority so far has been the protection of Iraqi sovereignty from foreign influence, including Iran.
- The Sairoon coalition maintains good relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while its main rival is the Fatah alliance. Despite gaining popularity for fighting the US, Sadr may be perceived by the West as the best candidate due to his public anti-Iranian stance.
Main Sunni Parties
- Sunni coalition led by Khamis Al-Khanjar, a businessman and billionaire. Khanjar is sanctioned by the US for corruption and bribery. He also has good relations with Qatar and Iran.
- The coalition also includes former Speaker of Parliament, Salim al-Jabouri who was also a leader in the Iraqi Islamic party. The party is perceived as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq. Though Jabouri left the party, he is still believed to enjoy clos ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
NATIONAL SALVATION PROJECT
- Sunni coalition formed between Osama Al-Nujaifi and Jamal Al-Dhari. Nujaifi served as Vice President of Iraq in 2016. His main support is likely to come from his city of origin, Mosul. Al-Dhari is one of the leaders of the Al-Zoba tribe in Abu Ghraib and nephew of an Islamic scholar.
- The coalition enjoys close ties to Turkey. Its main rival group is Taqqadum, mainly due to the competition for power among the Sunni community that has traditionally existed between Nujaifi and Mohamed Al-Halbousi.
- An alliance formed by current Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Al-Halbousi, with close ties to Saudi Arabia. The alliance also consists of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. Halbousi is Khanjar’s main rival in the election.
- Its main stronghold is Anbar province, where Halbousi used to be governor, and is expected to garner the majority Sunni vote. Despite this, the alliance is not extremely popular among the Sunni segment of Iraqi society. Halbousi will likely enter a coalition with Sairoon and the KDP, the parties he has been typically closer to.
Main Kurdish Parties
- The coalition was formed between the PUK and the Change Movement (Gorran). The coalition is led by Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Qubad Talabani. There is also an informal agreement in place between the PUK and the Islamic Union to support each other in different districts.
- The PUK is forming alliances in an attempt to undermine the KDP and shift the balance of power in the Kurdistan Region. The PUK is close to Iran and is expected to support the Fatah Alliance against a possible Sairoon-KDP coalition.
- Recent intra-PUK conflict between Bafel Talabani and Lahur Talabani may undermine the PUK’s position. Lahur Talabani was forced to hand over his powers to his cousin Bafel after being accused of trying to poison him.
KURDISTAN DEMOCRATIC PARTY (KDP)
- The KDP is the ruling party of the Kurdistan Region and is led by the Barzani family. The political map of the Kurdistan Region will not change as an aftermath of the elections given that the KDP is traditionally popular in Erbil and Dahuk, while the PUK’s stronghold is in Sulaymaniyah.
- The KDP is expected to form what will seem like an anti-Iran coalition with the Sadrist bloc following the results. The KDP enjoys good relations with Turkey, Arab states, and the US.
Iraq Election Scenarios
The elections are unlikely to bring about the changes the protest movement had hoped for while the same parties that have dominated Iraq since 2005 will stay in place. The demographics of the coalitions running have not changed, and they remain rooted in sectarianism.
There are no powerful coalitions that contain genuine multi-sectarian (Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish) elements and could make a significant impact. Alliances formed between sects are tactical and not genuine. Sunni voters are critical of the political elite, including the Sunni political parties, rendering low voter turnout increasingly likely in Sunni areas.
Below are the possible scenarios that may occur in the aftermath of the elections.
- The most likely scenario is the formation of a consensus government as an agreement between the competing political parties. This means that the current status quo will be preserved.
- The divisions that exist between the main Shia political parties make a coalition government more difficult to reach than a consensus one.
- A compromise Prime Minister with no political affiliations will be picked by the Sadrists, and there is a strong possibility that Mustafa Al-Kadhimi will be chosen again.
- According to the sectarian quota system, the presidency is held by a Kurd. The position will likely go to the PUK, and the re-election of President Barham Salih is probable.
- Protests have already been scheduled for 1 October and will increase after the elections given that no change will be brought about.
- Protests are likely to be held by the Al-Bayt Al-Watani party, the main protest party leading the boycott.
- If Sadr’s Sairoon coalition gains the most seats and seeks to form a coalition government, any decision will be vetoed by the Fatah alliance. Sadr has also lost allies such as the ICP and protest parties hence his quest for a coalition will be difficult.
- Equally, the Fatah alliance could gain more seats in this election. Iranian influence in parliament and the government would increase under Fatah. This will lead to further instability with reforms being unlikely. Emboldened militia groups will violently respond to protests and will adopt an even more aggressive anti-US stance.
- Political deadlock may ensue for months until a coalition government is formed between the parties with the most seats and a Prime Minister is appointed.
- The least likely scenario, in this case, would also be the best-case scenario for the Iraqi elections.
- The protest parties end their boycott and participate in the election, forming an opposition party able to bring about reforms. A coalition government would be formed consisting of Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, and protest parties.
- A Prime Minister would be elected based on the capability to enact reforms and willingness to tackle corruption. Real opposition to the status quo would exist in this scenario.
- The current political and sectarian framework of the country, as well as the competition between the political elite, make this scenario highly unlikely.
Written by Aveen Karim, Intelyse’s Regional Information Manager for the the Middle East.