Iraqi anger grows after election postponement

Iraq’s leaders, fearing defeat in planned June vote, manoeuvred to delay the election to buy time, an analyst says.

Iraqis have demonstrated against the state of affairs in their country [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

Sulaimaniyah City, Iraq – Iraq’s leaders pushed to postpone parliamentary elections fearing public discontent would lead to their removal from power, an analyst with ties to the government says.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, President Barham Salih, and Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad al-Halbusi wanted a later vote over concerns about their prospects for re-election and sought to buy time, said Mohammad Bakhtiar, a Kurdish political analyst who meets regularly with Iraqi decision-makers.

“At least two of the three leaders of Iraq who favoured early election have realised that their chances of being re-elected are minimal,” Bakhtiar said.

In a bid to delay the elections, the three Iraqi leaders met on January 12 and later with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and election commission officials, he told Al Jazeera.

After a request from Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission (IHEC), the government last week announced the postponement of the country’s elections from June 6 to October 10.

Bakhtiar said it was unlikely the vote would take place in October and suggested May 2022 was more likely.

But a source close to the Iraqi government said the October date for the election will hold. “There are no formal intentions to postpone the elections in October since such a step is very difficult legally and politically,” he told Al Jazeera.

But he added: “If Iraq witnesses very tense situations – for example, protesters take to the streets, assassinations resume, or military escalations happen within Iraq – then holding the elections would be impossible.”

The offices of the three Iraqi leaders were contacted for comment but no response was received by the time of publication.

Iraqi anger

Al-Kadhimi had promised to hold early elections to appease demonstrators demanding an overhaul of the country’s political system after taking office in May last year.

The election delay has received a chilly response from many Iraqis demanding political change. Mass demonstrations began in October 2019 with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets throughout the oil-rich country to protest against a lack of economic opportunities, endemic corruption, and foreign interference.

“Nothing good has come from the three Iraqi leaders. They have made several shiny promises to us but did not fulfil anything,” Ahmed Talan, a 24-year-old Kurdish co-owner of a minimarket in Sulaimaniyah, told Al Jazeera.

“We have many miseries. I struggle to earn my daily bread. I cannot get married, cannot have a good education – even though I work full-time.”

Bakhtyar Mahmud, a former editor at the Iraqi presidency website, said the ruling elites are only out for self-preservation.

“The aim of Iraq’s ruling political parties in general, Iraq’s three presidencies in particular, is prolonging their grip of power and protecting their personal interests behind their positions,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Iraq’s leaders are weak and have nothing new to do for Iraqis, since the habit of corruption and authoritarianism is increasing. They are extending time for their own interests because they are failures and lost any chances of their re-election.”

A young Sunni-Arab truck driver from Baghdad now living in Sulaimaniyah said as a university graduate he has searched for a job in his field of study for eight years.

“Political parties are controlling all aspects of life in Iraq and foreign interference is a reality in this country,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Iraqi demonstrators chanting slogans in the southern city of Nasiriya in October [File: Assaad al-Niyazi/AFP]

Foreign interference

Diliman Abdulkader, co-founder and director of American Friends of Kurdistan, told Al Jazeera the ongoing confrontation between Iran and the United States was also a factor stoking resentment among Iraqis.

“The US and Iran continue to battle for influence in Iraq’s political sphere, similar to previous elections. As troop levels dwindle for the US in Iraq, the US must ensure its diplomatic ties are strong enough to counter Iran,” said Abdulkader.

“However, both sides are weaker this time around. Iraqi youth are demanding they control their own country distant from foreign intervention. If their demands are not met we can see more protests in the upcoming months. We may also witness a slight ease of tensions between the US and Iran in Iraq as the two sides renegotiate the [Iran] nuclear deal.”

A resurgence of violence has also hit Iraq in recent weeks, underscored by last week’s twin suicide bombings at a busy market in the Iraqi capital that killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Supreme Court – tasked with ratifying the final results of the elections – currently cannot fulfil its duties as two of its nine members died without being replaced, meaning elections in October may not even be possible.

Kurdish jockeying

Following former dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime collapse in the 2003 US-led invasion, power has been traditionally shared among Iraq’s three largest ethnic-sectarian constituents.

Accordingly, the prime minister post, the most powerful one, has been held by a Shia Arab, the speaker of parliament by a Sunni Arab, and the president – a largely ceremonial post – by a Kurd.

A political consensus is usually done with the sponsorship of both Washington and Tehran in a bid to keep their power balance and influence in Iraq.

The two main Kurdish ruling parties in the Kurdistan region – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – signed a strategic agreement in 2005 to share power in the region and Iraq.

Iraq’s presidency is held by the PUK while the KDP holds the Kurdistan Regional Government’s presidency. But, the two parties abandoned the deal in 2018 when the KDP nominated Fouad Hussein to compete with Salih. Hussein later became Iraq’s foreign minister.

“Preserving the sovereign posts in the Iraqi state … is left to how the Kurds can this time make agreements with the Arab political parties,” Rezan Sheikh Dler, a Kurdish member in the Iraqi council of representatives, told Al Jazeera.

“Both KDP and PUK might have separate candidates for the presidency as happened in 2018.

‘No support’

Salih was the second deputy of PUK’s general secretary, but broke with his party in September 2017 and formed the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ). Salih’s new party won only two seats in the Iraqi parliament following May 2018 general elections that witnessed large scale voter fraud. Salih later dissolved his party and returned to PUK’s ranks and later became Iraq’s president.

Two advisers to the Iraqi president, who also asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera that Salih has yet to decide whether to run for a second term.

“Chances of winning a second term by Salih are very difficult as his political party [PUK] is no longer interested in the ceremonial post. PUK would prefer to exchange roles with KDP in Baghdad and Erbil,” said Bakhtiar.

“PUK wants to run the Kurdistan Region’s presidency and several ministerial portfolios, including Iraq’s foreign ministry, in return for giving Iraq’s president post to the KDP. Salih has no support within PUK, the KDP, and most Shia blocs that are loyal to Iran. He has only support of Muqtada al-Sadr and a few Sunni Arab blocs.”

He added the KDP is discussing the PUK’s suggestion but if it is declined the PUK will try to negotiate with Sunni-Arab politicians to receive Iraq’s speaker of parliament role in exchange for the presidency.

Sarkawt Shams, a Kurdish MP in the Iraqi parliament from the Future Bloc, predicted the Kurds will hold on to the presidency position in the next elections if “a suitable candidate occupies it”.

According to the source, alternatively, the PUK will try to negotiate with Sunni-Arab politicians to become Iraq’s speaker of parliament in exchange for the presidency.

Will Salih split again from PUK?

Recently, 15 Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament from different political parties formed the Kurdistan Alliance of Hope (KAH).  Some speculated on social media that Salih was behind the move to secure votes for a second term, but Shams and another Kurdish MP close to Salih dismissed that.

“First of all Kurdistan Alliance of Hope is merely a parliamentary alliance, we have not decided to enter next elections as an alliance – but it is possible,” Shams said.

Rebwar Mahmud, an independent lawmaker from the alliance, told Al Jazeera: “There are no political agendas by anyone behind establishing the KAH.”

Iraq’s Shia population and Iran are likely to shun Salih because of his meeting and handshake with outgoing US President Donald Trump in Switzerland, 18 days after the assassination of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), and Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, in a US drone strike on their convoy near Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020.

Al Jazeera contacted Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) official Divan Fawzi Hariri and the PUK’s spokesperson Amin Baba Sheikh, but both were unavailable for comment.