Iraq’s parliamentary election will produce more of the same

It is important for Europeans to be realistic about the Iraqi government’s ability to enact reforms. As Iraq’s next governing coalition will include many deeply reactionary groups, the country will continue to struggle to address the long-standing challenges that create domestic instability.

Khulafa Street in downtown Baghdad, Iraq
Image by David Stanley

Iraq’s next parliamentary election will take place on 10 October, months before the constitutionally mandated date, to fulfil Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s promise to hold an early vote. Kadhimi made the pledge when he assumed office in May 2020, after widespread demonstrations prompted the collapse of the previous government. Although he has met the protesters’ demands for an early election and the reform of Iraq’s electoral law, the contest will not produce the thoroughgoing reform of the Iraqi political system that they sought. Large swathes of Iraqi society are disillusioned with the system and will boycott the vote. The election is likely to be followed by a long period of negotiations over the formation of the government, after which one can expect to see established political parties come to a power-sharing arrangement similar to the one Iraq has now. The next government is likely to pronounce its commitment to economic and security sector reforms, but the barriers to implementing such measures will remain firmly in place.

Europe and the broader international community have tried to enable free and fair elections in Iraq by supporting the country’s electoral commission and by providing it with election monitoring missions. However, they must recognise that many Iraqis view the entire political system as illegitimate. European states would welcome a second term for Kadhimi, whose reform-focused rhetoric and prominent outreach to other Middle Eastern countries have bolstered his international reputation. But it is important for them to be realistic about his ability to enact reforms. As the next governing coalition will include many deeply reactionary groups, Iraq will continue to struggle to address the long-standing challenges that create domestic instability.

Kadhimi has worked hard to produce an early election, despite efforts to derail the polls. The vote was originally slated for June 2021, but the government had to postpone it because of parliament’s failure to make the necessary preparations. In July 2021, key political leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s dramatic withdrawal from the political process raised fears within the prime minister’s team that the election would be further delayed. A significant part of the political establishment was uneasy with the idea that the influential Sadrist movement would operate outside the political process. And, if Sadr had persisted with his boycott, the election would likely have been delayed again. Analysts speculated that Sadr was seeking to deflect criticism of his political movement following several incidents that threatened to undermine his popularity, including the outbreak of deadly fires in hospitals under the control of people he appointed. Painstaking political negotiations, however, led the Sadrists to re-enter the electoral race – allowing October’s vote to go ahead.

Even if Kadhimi is replaced as prime minister, hard-line Shia parties are still widely expected to support a relatively moderate figure who is palatable to Western states

As with the early election, Iraq’s new electoral law will not produce the overhaul of the political system that demonstrators sought. The law was supposed to enable constituents to elect well-respected individuals in their local communities by dividing the country into smaller electoral districts. But the process of drawing up new constituencies was heavily politicised, leading to significant gerrymandering that will largely benefit established political parties. New parties and independent candidates have faced intense targeted violence perpetrated by armed groups that are affiliated with the political establishment. Moderate voters are increasingly likely to boycott the vote, citing their anger at violence against activists, their expectation that the election will be fraudulent, and their lack of confidence in the ability of the political system to enact critical reforms. According to recent polls, turnout will be substantially lower than the 44 per cent in the 2018 parliamentary election – although Iraq’s Electoral Commission may change the way it measures turnout, which could lead to false assertions of a rise in electoral participation.

No single party or alliance will win sufficient votes to form a government by itself. Instead, a lengthy process of political negotiations will follow the election as various political entities compete to control important and lucrative government posts. The Sadrists, who are likely to perform well in the election, may work with moderate Shia actors such as Ammar al-Hakim and former prime minister Haider al-Abadi to advocate for Kadhimi to retain his position. But Kadhimi is likely to face opposition from the more hard-line Fatah coalition. This grouping includes relatively extreme Shia parties such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, which are resistant to efforts to exert central control over the security sector or maintain greater independence from Iran.

Despite their differences, all prominent parties are deeply entrenched beneficiaries of the existing political system and are unlikely to pursue significant reforms to tackle corruption or overhaul the dangerously unstable Iraqi economy. Ultimately, after months of negotiations, during which the state will run on autopilot with little new policy or legislative activity, the parties will likely reach a compromise that produces a government similar to the current one. Even if Kadhimi is replaced as prime minister, hard-line Shia parties are still widely expected to support a relatively moderate figure who is palatable to Western states – safe in the knowledge that he will struggle to significantly reform the Iraqi government or threaten entrenched interests.

While European states would welcome a second term for Kadhimi, they will need to exert greater pressure on the broader Iraqi political establishment to embrace much-needed security sector and economic reforms. Despite using the right language on reform, Kadhimi faces an uphill battle to enact change. Therefore, Europeans will need to not only pressure the wider political establishment to reform but also increase their support for Iraqi civil society to hold the government in Baghdad to account. Given that the next government is likely to remain unable or unwilling to address the corruption and socio-economic grievances that have fed unrest, one can expect another major protest movement to emerge in Iraq during the next legislative period. Europeans should engage with young demonstrators to help them protect themselves, hold MPs to account, and prepare to vigorously contest future elections. Grappling with structural reform and empowering advocates of change within civil society remain immense challenges. But they are the most effective ways to forestall further instability in Iraq.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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