This week’s elections in Iraq are unlikely to produce any earth-shattering results. There is far more electoral competition between parties in Iraq than most other countries in the region, including Lebanon where voters this week returned the country’s political monopoly to power with scarcely any changes. But most of the main candidates in Iraq are well-known quantities and there is absolutely no chance of any independent figures or new political forces breaking into parliament or into government. Given how dysfunctional many of those candidates have been while in power since 2003, many voters have already decided that they will protest against the state. The only real question is how many votes Iraq’s dominant parties will gain on election day, and how they will use the results when negotiating the formation of the next government.
Some commentators have noted that one difference in 2018 is the increasing number of cross-sectarian alliances, but that trend started many cycles ago, and there are currently very few electoral alliances that are likely to attract voters from across the ethno-sectarian divide. There is an argument that electoral politics have regressed in that regard: in 2010 and 2014, there was significant chatter about new civil, independent movements that contested those elections, but they have been close to absent from the current elections.
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As in the past, the main focus of attention will be on how Shia Iraqis will cast their votes. Their community’s dominant position virtually guarantees that the next prime minister will be drawn from one of a small number of parties and alliances. That is even more certain than in the past, given how divided and discredited other communities’ politicians have become. And while most parties barely have any political platforms to speak of, there are a few differences that will make a difference to Iraq’s future, including their respective positions on whether the country should be involved in the region’s many conflicts.
Who is running?
Past electoral cycles have produced many surprises, including Iyad Allawi’s surprise victory in 2010, so predictions are naturally unwise. However, the frontrunner in the 2018 elections appears to be current prime minister Haider al-Abadi. The question is less whether al-Abadi will come out on top, and more how much distance he will be able to put between himself and his closest competitors. Al-Abadi is a moderate in both substance and style: a soft-spoken individual whose rhetoric is consistently conciliatory and who seeks to keep Iraq at arm’s distance from all international and regional powers and, thereby, protect the population from any new conflicts. Al-Abadi’s narrative and electoral platform will appeal to many voters, particularly given the state’s victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for which al-Abadi has taken some credit, and for Baghdad’s vastly improved security since 2014. He has set the tone for these elections, which have been remarkably civil in comparison to the poisonous atmosphere that prevailed in 2005, 2010 and 2014. At the same time, however, al-Abadi’s moderation suggests weakness to those voters who are accustomed to their leaders projecting strength and arrogance, which has led some analysts to question whether he will do well enough to dominate the next government.
Alliances headed by Muqtada al-Sadr and by Hadi al-Amiri are al-Abadi’s main competitors. Al-Sadr and his family profess to represent Iraq’s most marginalised economic communities, and as a result, he is one of the country’s very few political movements that has a loyal constituency that consistently earns him approximately nine percent of the popular vote. Al-Sadr’s platform strongly favours an independent foreign policy, which sets it apart from Iranian-backed politicians including al-Amiri. He also carries a strong anti-corruption message, which he has demonstrated his commitment to by forbidding almost all of his alliance’s previous MPs from standing in this year’s election (nominally in an effort to curb the benefits of incumbency). Finally, al-Sadr has allied with the Iraqi Communist Party, formally to encourage greater participation of Iraq’s technocratic class in any future government. It is unclear whether that will translate into additional votes (some Iraqis are likely to shy away from voting for any alliance that includes communists), or even whether it will actually lead to an improvement in the government’s performance.
Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance is one of the main unknowns in the coming elections. Fatah is led by the Badr Brigades and by elements drawn from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), many of which have received material support from Iran. The Alliance will no doubt benefit from the PMF’s popularity in some circles, but a number of other factors will bear significant negative weight on its prospects. Among other things, al-Amiri’s own performance when he was minister, which includes serious allegations of nepotism and a series of questionable statements to the press denying that there was any real poverty in Iraq, does not play very well with the public. Serious questions have also recently been raised about al-Amiri’s administration of PMF monies, which will serve to remind voters of his pre-2014 past. In addition, al-Amiri’s and Fatah’s close association with Iran is an overall negative in Iraq generally and in the Shia community that al-Amiri hopes to draw most of his votes from. It is by now well established that a large number of Iraqis, including Shia Iraqis, would prefer to keep an expansionist Iran at arm’s length and to not be involved in in the region’s worsening conflicts. In the past, those preferences caused for voters to abandon other Iranian-backed alliances en masse and that factor could easily work against al-Amiri, particularly given how war-weary Iraqis have become in recent years and given that Iraq’s regular army, police and special forces have now regained many people’s trust.
The other two alliances that are worth discussing here include Ammar al-Hakim’s Citizen Alliance and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance. Al-Hakim has rebranded himself and his movement on a number of occasions since 2009, in an attempt to formally distance himself from his family’s pro-Iranian past. His platform is currently designed to appeal to a younger generation of Iraqis. That narrative is unlikely to be particularly appealing to sufficient numbers of voters, particularly given the competition from other coalitions, which means that his Alliance is unlikely to improve on its performance in the 2014 elections. Meanwhile, al-Maliki is broadly damaged goods at this point. He has been at the receiving end of so much criticism and blame for his role in the Iraqi army’s incredible defeat in 2014 that few major political figures were willing to join forces with him, and most of the rest have essentially vetoed him as a viable national figure since 2014. He will still attract votes, mainly due to the lingering benefits of his eight-year incumbency as prime minister, but he is no longer considered a leading candidate for prime minister.
After the dust clears, and each party’s respective vote count is tallied, they will start the long and painful process of forming a new government. Given all of the above, pro-Iranian forces are not likely to win a controlling share of parliament, which means that Iraq will probably be able to maintain its independent stance and focus most of its attention on internal issues.
At the same time, however, whatever government is formed will be necessarily as incoherent as in the past. Research that was carried out in Lebanon in the run-up to last week’s elections showed that a crushing majority of candidates had little knowledge of their own parties’ platforms. If similar research were carried out in Iraq, it would no doubt lead to similar results. Government formation in Iraq is negotiation not over policies, but over personalities and power plays.
If there is one thing that the future government could do to improve performance it would be to prioritise one area of reform over all others (such as education or healthcare) and to invest the bulk of the state’s capacity into that area for a specific period with a view to making real and quick progress at least in one area. That would not only lead to improved standards of living, but it would also improve the public’s trust in government. Previous government programs did not set out clear priority areas, and the result was that whatever progress was made was painstakingly slow and marginal. Let us hope that at least that lesson will be learned and that some form of prioritisation will be introduced in the coming period.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.