ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — In the past two weeks, five parties have dropped out of Iraq’s election race. Shiite, Sunni, non-sectarian – all sides are questioning the legitimacy of the vote in an environment where powerful militias operate outside government control, activists and elections candidates are threatened, and the electoral commission and political elites are accused of fraud.
Will the election go ahead, is the question on everyone’s lips.
The Sadrist movement was the first to announce its withdrawal when its leader, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, declared he will not run. “I announce that I am withdrawing my hand from all those who are working with this government, the current and the upcoming, even if they had allegiance to us, the family of Sadr,” Sadr said in a televised speech.
Sadr does not hold elected position himself, but he leads the Sairoon coalition, parliament’s largest bloc.
The Iraqi Communist Party joined the Sadrist movement, calling on the masses not to vote because the elections lack the “slightest degree of integrity.”
In the 2018 election, the Communist Party allied with Sairoon, collectively securing 54 seats.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi Platform, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, announced they too were dropping out of the race. A similar decision was made by the National Dialogue Front led by Sunni leader Salih al-Mutlaq.
Wael Abdel Latif, deputy head of the Iraqi Platform party, told Rudaw English on Thursday that with the presence of armed factions threatening the lives of activists, there is no room for fair elections. The electoral law in its current form may lead to internal war between those armed groups, he added.
“The parties have the intention of fraud, and there are four million electoral cards that have been forged in advance. The state will not be able to confront the armed factions, even the United Nations will not be able to monitor every electoral center in the country,” Latif said.
Allawi, who headed the Iraqi government in 2004 – 2005, ran in the 2018 parliamentary elections as head of the National Coalition and won 21 of parliament’s 329 seats.
“We are fully convinced that these elections will be the worst elections in Iraq after 2003,” Latif added.
The Iraqi National House, a new party formed by a group of Tishreen (October movement) protesters, also withdrew from the elections for the same reasons.
Hussain al-Gharabi, the party’s spokesman, told Rudaw English on Thursday that despite government assurances about the elections, it is clear that the ruling political parties have no intention of creating a democratic environment for the vote.
“The conditions for holding the elections are not met, so the party decided to boycott, especially with the presence of uncontrolled weapons and impunity for killers of activists,” Gharabi said.
New election law
Iraq’s electoral system, built after the US invasion of 2003, divides power among Iraq’s biggest religious and ethnic groups – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. An overhaul of this sectarian system was one of the demands made by protesters who took to Iraq’s streets beginning in October 2019 and forced the resignation of former prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. More than 600 protesters were killed in a wave of violence against the demonstrations, and dozens more have been killed in targeted assassinated.
Electoral laws passed in 2014 and 2018 divided the country into constituencies based on the 18 governorates. The new electoral law expanded the number of constituencies to 83, based on the quota of seats for women.
Twenty five percent of seats in the parliament are reserved for women, numbering to 83 spots. In each constituency, there are three to five seats up for grab, at least one of them reserved for a woman. For example, the province of Baghdad has 17 female MPs; therefore, it will have 17 constituencies according to the new law.
A goal of the smaller electoral districts is better regional representation in parliament, and lawmakers who are connected to their constituencies.
A total of 3,243 candidatesrepresenting 44 coalitions and 267 parties, along with independents, registered with the Independent High Electoral Commission to compete for parliament’s 329 seats.
The head of the Iraqi Communist Party’s political bureau, Raed Fahmy, told English Rudaw on Thursday that there may be a new electoral system in place, but while armed factions threaten candidates, the vote will only guarantee the survival of the same political elites.
“These elections are supposed to bring change, not reproduce the same political class,” he said. “We will not participate in elections in light of the threats to activists, voters and candidates by armed factions. Most of young candidates fled to Erbil.”
Elections will take place as scheduled, Hussein al-Hindawi, an adviser to the prime minister, told Rudaw English on Thursday. The withdrawal of some parties does not constitute a legal reason for canceling or postponing them, he said, noting the government is taking steps to prevent fraud.
“The upcoming elections will be conducted in a completely different way from the previous ones. It will adopt the biometric system that will completely prevent external interference in the elections and will prevent fraud,” he said.
President Barham Salih has suggested tightening the rules on what voter cards are accepted in order to counter fraud. He suggested “preventing the illegal use of short-term voter cards that have not been updated to include biometrics,” adding voters who hold non-updated cards must update them the day of the polls before they vote.
He also proposed the electoral commission announce results with a live broadcast within 24 hours of polls closing.
Will voters boycott?
Despite government assurances, calls to boycott the elections are growing. Interest has been weak from the beginning. The elections, happening a year ahead of schedule, were originally set for June, but the date was pushed to October 10 because registration was low.
In the face of violence and threats to their lives, with killers of activists walking the streets with impunity, some protesters have called for a boycott and Iraq’s Christian voters said they will not participate because of concerns over possible fraud.
But a boycott would diminish the already small independent voice in the parliament, argued an Iraqi watcher who writes under the name Local Observer.
“While it might take several election cycles for pro-reform activists to be well-represented in parliament, the gradual reduction of the parliamentary representation of Sadrists and loyalists would contribute to depriving them of political cover and hinder their ability to further entrench themselves into the state and its institutions,” she wrote.
Political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari told Rudaw English that most of the parties that announced their withdrawal were established parties that participated in previous elections and feared losing popularity after the October protests.
“It seems that these forces are pushing towards postponing the elections because the calculations for staying in the current government are better for them than holding elections and losing them,” he said.
Calls for a boycott are an attempt to convince people that the elections are futile, he said, but they will not affect the decision to hold the vote on time, because reputations are at stake.
“If the [electoral] commission acquiesced to the political decision of these parties, this means that it is weak, politicized and not independent,” he said.