Post-electoral Iraq: A country faced with its demon the Antichrist

Iraqi security forces members stand guard outside the local headquarters of the Independent High Electoral Commission in Basra on November 9, 2021, as supporters of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance demonstrate nearby. Photo: Hussein Faleh/AFP

Post-electoral Iraq: A country faced with its demons

10 hours ago

On the 10th of October 2021, Iraqis voted for 329 parliamentarians in the new national assembly. Twenty-eight days later, Sunday the 7th of November, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was targeted in an assassination attempt that he escaped unscathed. An explosive-laden drone exploded within his residence in Baghdad’s Green Zone, a highly secure and protected district of the Iraqi capital. Amongst his personal guard, multiple wounded have been reported. The attack was partially repelled, as two drones directed towards the residence were intercepted.

Shortly after in a video uploaded on his Twitter, Kadhimi condemned his opponents and the military means they used to weigh in on the current power balance: “The cowardly rockets and drone attacks build no countries, nor future.”

This assassination attempt is considered a dangerous escalation in violence within the context of a fragile state that is threatened by all sides and exposed to a series of risks that could lead to the end of its tenuous stability.

It is in this context that the President of the United States of America Joe Biden expressed his relief that “the Prime Minister was not injured and (I) commend the leadership he has shown in calling for calm, restraint, and dialogue to protect the institutions of the state and strengthen the democracy Iraqis so richly deserve.” Biden isn’t the only one who is worried by this escalation. France has also categorically opposed, “All shapes of destabilisation attempts, violence and intimidation in the country.” Even Iraq has called upon Iraqis to use their “Vigilance to defuse the plots aimed at the security” of Iraq.

Through the reactions of countries from the international community and countries from the region, an assessment can be drawn: the security and stability of Iraq constitute the epicentre of the world. Consequently, the radicalisation of conflicting ideas is objectively unacceptable for anyone within or outside the country. This is why Kadhimi’s threat, “We know them well,” is not likely to come to light because appeasement imposes its own demands: secrecy surrounding those who have organised and perpetrated the attempted assassination.

Winners and losers

The preliminary results announced by the electoral commission highlight a common political fact, which is the absence of a national winner who is nationally recognised. If indeed they are multiple winners, it is clear that the winner for the Shias is not the same as for the Sunnis, nor the Kurds, and vice versa.

The Shia political landscape, like the Kurdish and Sunni landscapes, is fragmented into three major poles: nationalists, pro-Iranians, and the actors of the protest movement. Muqtada al-Sadr, who currently personifies Shias with a specific idea of Iraqi nationalism, has unquestionably won against all his pro-Iranian advisories. With his estimated 73 seats, he is ahead of the Aqed al-Watani coalition (5 seats), the Fatih Alliance (15 seats), and also the State of Law Coalition (35 seats). The arrival of twenty or so leaders from the protest movement is a considerable shift within the Shia electoral landscape because from now on, the nationalists and pro-Iranians must contend with this new change that has a significant electoral base.

Notwithstanding, the pro-Iranian setback must be nuanced. If admittedly they have lost seats with only a total of 55 out of 329 seats, once the three forces have been reunited (Aqed al-Watani, Fatih, State of Law), they maintain an electoral base that is intact: 1,150,144 people voted for them. Yet, the Sadrist nationalist voters only represent a base of 906,110 voices. This can partly be explained by the lack of understanding of the new electoral law by the pro-Iranian pole and to the smart handling of this same law by the Sadr nationalists. Indeed, this new law establishes a uninominal ballot and increases the number of constituencies, which could give more opportunities to independent candidates.

With the Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) confirms its domination in the Kurdish political landscape by obtaining 33 seats on its own, without any coalition. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) comes far behind the KDP with only 15 seats. However, the New Generation party, which is the Kurdish equivalent to the protest movement in the Shia south, gains in power by snatching nine seats – something that had never happened before in the Kurdish political landscape.

The difference compared with the Shia political forces is the fact that for the Kurds the number of seats reflects the electoral base of each actor. Thus, the 768,791 people who voted for the KDP are perfectly distributed and oriented in each constituency in the Kurdish territory to ensure that Barzani’s party was able to obtain 33 seats. This is equally true on a smaller scale for the PUK, with 15 seats for 290,126 voters. The only weakness can be found amongst New Generation. With its 234,314 voters, it could have obtained more than its nine seats and win 13 seats.

In the Sunni area, we have been able to observe a new power balance. Indeed, the speaker of the parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi who ran in a party that secured only six seats in 2018, has made swift progress by gaining 37 seats this time. Facing him, the coalition led by his rival Khamis al-Khanjar, was only able to win 13 seats.

Strong in his electoral apparatus and aided by foreign experts, Halbousi managed his electoral base in perfect accordance with the new electoral law. Thus, his 628,302 votes give him access to 37 seats. To the contrary, his rival Khanjar has probably not been able to manage the new rules of the game with the same intelligence. Consequently, he transformed 401,903 votes in his favour to a weak total of 13 seats.

The question on everyone’s mind now is the following: can the Shia (Sadr), Kurdish (Barzani), and Sunni (Halbousi) winners form a government? Theoretically yes, although this is not likely. The functioning of the political system of the state will not enable the emergence of a coalition in power, nor with the opposition forces in the national assembly. Thus, there exists a scenario where the country could enter a civil war due to the militia-ization of antagonist political forces. The mediation of the disagreements would thus take place with drones instead of political debates. This explains the fact that since 2003, all political forces are simultaneously in the government and in opposition, leading them to behave both like government and opposition actors.

Foreign meddling

Since 2003, Iraq is a promised land for the meddling of regional or international powers. The country does not possess any lever to counter this. Admittedly, the Islamic Republic of Iran or the United States of America are often designated as the culprits. Yet Turkey, Arab countries, and also the European Union’s actions are also observed, to a different degree.

On paper, Iraq is an independent state, but in concrete terms, it is the Iranians and Americans who filter the main strategic direction of the country. These great two regional and international powers have a common strategy, despite their disagreements on multiple files other than Iraq. These include not letting the country slide into civil war, preventing the escalation of local actors, and upholding the country’s unity.

The United States’ disengagement strategy in Iraq demands that Washington mobilises all its influence to ensure that Iraq’s stabilisation façade is not called into question. The Islamic Republic of Iran also has no strategic interest in jeopardising this claimed stability. To the contrary, a civil war, an implosion, an explosion, or a loss of security in Iraq could affect the stability and security of Iran. However, it is clear that Iran has no desire for Iraq to find its full health and regional place in the Arab environment. Tehran has never forgotten the eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s. This trauma remains vivid for the Iranian regime and is why it’s highly unlikely that they will allow the emergence of a strong state or simply a robust Iraqi state.

Turkey’s influence takes on multiple shapes. In the Kurdistan Region, it is simultaneously military, economic, and diplomatic. At war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on its soil, the Turkish army has established in the last few years at least 33 military bases in the territory managed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Turkey thus demonstrates its willingness to hunt the PKK wherever they may be on Iraqi territory, from Zakho to Shingal. The intrusion is also economic, because it is through Turkey that Kurdish oil passes to be then sold on the international market. Consequently, Ankara always influences the economic orientations of the KRG. 

By these geopolitical determinisms, the KRG often finds itself obligated to take into account the grand diplomatic strategies of Turkey regarding Iraq. Despite the importance of the KRG for Turkey, the latter tries to broaden its perimeter of action to include the Sunni area of influence in the ancient province of Nineveh. It is in this scope that the Turkish president tries to reconcile Halbousi and Khanjar, the two Sunni leaders.

The Iraqi policy of the Arab countries is, to a large extent, spearheaded by the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After multiple years of confrontation with Iran on Iraqi soil, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman now adopts a more diplomatic approach, vacillating between negotiations and an appeasement mind set with Iran, linked to the Iraqi question. 

The approach of the UAE is more radical, aggressive, and less nuanced. Mohammed Bin Zayed’s UAE is working on bolstering the Sunni community in Iraq and even the creating sanctuary in its territory on the basis of its Sunni character. This reconstruction could go as far as the formulation of a political entity, following the example of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The European Union, through France, also tries to act in the political, security, and economic sectors of the country. Indeed, France believes that Iraq suffers from great structural dysfunctions and that without a new political formula it is unlikely that the country can guarantee the vital minimum of stability, security, and development. Could France accompany the Iraqis towards the construction of a new formula? Without the direct help of European countries or of the United States, this seems unlikely because Paris alone, despite its good will, does not possess the sufficient means to accomplish its Iraqi dream.

The probability to form a new government remains high. With the help of the international community and neighbouring countries, notably Iran, Iraqis should have, in the coming months, a new government in which everyone will be able to take part. Sadr’s nationalists and the pro-Iranians are moving towards a distribution of the dedicated positions for the Shia within the government, amounting to 50% of the positions under the system adopted after 2003. Halbousi and Khanjar’s Sunnis will proceed using the same method by sharing 25% of the positions that belong to them. The KDP and PUK will find a similar formula to share the 20% of Kurdish positions in the government. The protest movement in the south and New Generation in Kurdistan will place themselves in the opposition and continue to denounce the system.

Thus, the new chapter of this drama series in Iraq remains in perfect continuity with previous episodes. For several years now, the entirety of Iraqi political forces has called for reform of a broken political system. Yet, in practice, there still does not exist a major political party that possesses a serious willingness to carry out this project of reforming the system.

The country lacks elites who have at their disposal solid militant bases with the dream of an operational state with strong institutions and of a state at the service of its citizens. On the contrary, the country is rich in elites who consider that the state is a provider of loot that needs to be shared. This is how, from one election to another, society’s distrust towards the elites is growing. Officially only 41% of the 22 million registered voters participated in the elections. It is in this context that I no longer discuss abstention or de-politicization, but rather a structural rupture between the elites who have access to all the privileges and the Iraqi society that is completely abandoned, frustrated, marginalised, and left to its own devices.

Adel Bakawan is director of the Centre Français de Recherche sur l’Irak (CFRI, French Centre for Research on Iraq).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.

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