Iraqi protesters helped trigger new elections. But many doubt their votes will matter

BAGHDAD – In 2019, thousands of Iraqis started participating in huge protests to demand change. They called for an end to the endemic corruption that siphons off their country’s oil wealth, for better utilities like reliable water and electricity, and for a greater voice in government.

The protest movement ousted Adil Abdul-Mahdi, then prime minister, in May 2020, and called new elections. Iraqi voters will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament for the fifth time since longtime dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted after the US invasion in 2003.

But many Iraqis say they see no reason to vote. The current ruling parties – many of which are backed by militias involved in attacks that killed some 600 protesters – are set to dominate again, political analysts say. Young Iraqis say they see no future for themselves in their country.

While some protesters are contesting the election as candidates, many others have called for a boycott of the vote. The final election result will be shaped by powerful actors, including the country’s sectarian leaders, Iran and the United States.

Here is an overview of the vote and the key questions.

The parties now in power should keep the upper hand

After years of watching existing political parties fail to ensure effective governance, Sunday’s turnout will be a test of voter confidence in the Iraqi political system. According to the Iraqi Election Commission, there are more than 25 million registered voters. There are over 3,200 candidates for 329 seats in parliament. The new parliamentarians will choose the next prime minister, a post currently held by Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

A new electoral law allows Iraqis to vote for specific candidates instead of large party lists. It aims to empower politicians and revitalize an electoral process that increasingly suffers from voter apathy and fraud.

A major problem, however, is that most newly created political parties or independent candidates do not have the same funds or the same organizational power as the larger established parties. Additionally, some new candidates say their ability to campaign has been hampered by threats and even assassination attempts. These candidates are therefore not expected to win many seats, and existing parties are likely to garner the largest share of the vote.

Among Iraq’s majority Shiite population, the Sadrist Movement led by popular cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will vie for votes with Al-Fateh, an alliance of political parties – many of which are linked to militias – who are influenced by the Iran.

Politicians in the Sunni-majority areas campaigned by promising to help rebuild the many areas that were destroyed during Iraq’s years of struggle against ISIS. The party of Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi is among the most popular in these regions, although it is contested by businessman Khamis Khanjar, who has invested heavily in it.

In the Kurdish region of Iraq, with a population of around 5 million, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of the Prime Minister of this region, Masrour Barzani, should prevail.

Many Iraqis blame the United States for their country’s governance problems

Iranian-backed Iraqi political parties have called on US troops to leave Iraq – this is a central part of their election campaigns. Tensions between the United States and Iran escalated in January 2020, after the United States killed a senior Iranian military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad.

Washington said the US combat mission in Iraq will end by the end of the year, but the US will continue to train and advise the Iraqi military. In practice, the number of US troops is expected to remain similar, although the approximately 2,500 US troops in the country are likely to be less visible.

Critics say the United States shares some responsibility for the governance failure in Iraq. After the 2003 invasion, the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council established a sectarian allocation system, which continues to this day. This quota system divides ministerial roles and ministries and their resources among ethno-sectarian parties. With the country in the throes of a bloody sectarian civil war, this was aimed at ensuring that different ethnic groups and religious sects had political representation.

Growing anger against this system, known as muhasasa, was one of the causes of the popular protests that started in 2019. It is widely regarded as one of the main reasons for the governance problems in Iraq today. This has led to a standoff in parliament and has lent itself to widespread corruption and favoritism, as political parties embezzle state funds to pay supporters or reserve jobs for loyalists.

The results will take a long time to know

The vote will likely be followed by months of negotiations between the major players. No party is expected to win an absolute majority and the election will be followed by a long negotiation process, as parties form coalitions and share control of ministries. It could take months.

The United States and Iran will likely have a role to play in shaping the end result. In the past, these countries have essentially signed a choice of prime minister acceptable to both.

Both Washington and Tehran have an interest in ensuring that established political parties continue to exercise power within the existing political system.

For the United States, maintaining the status quo is more secure than not and will help avoid any further potential crisis for President Biden’s White House following the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan. It also allows the United States to maintain American troops in the country in one form or another and to continue to have influence in a country of strategic importance in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Iran’s influence within the Iraqi government has grown and Tehran has strengthened the power of the Iraqi militias it supports.

But maintaining the status quo is at odds with what many Iraqis want. They crave changes that they hope will bring a better quality of life.

Many protesters who risked their lives to organize these elections are now saying they will boycott them, believing they will bring little real change. They say they will continue to push for reform through protests – not through Sunday’s poll.

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