Zheger Hassan served as an observer for Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission. He is an adjunct professor of political science at King’s University College in London, Ont., and co-director of MENARG at the University of Western Ontario.
On May 12, millions of Iraqis voted in the first election since the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria less than one year ago. The vote comes at a critical time for Iraq and serves as a yardstick for evaluating the progress of Iraqi democracy. The outcome of the election underscores the important progress Iraq has made since 2005 and it also highlights the continuing challenges facing the country.
Perhaps the most important development is that political parties campaigned across ethnic and sectarian lines. This included incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform, both of which enlisted candidates from Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities. One of the incoming members of parliament from Mr. al-Sadr’s coalition is a Shia Kurd from Baghdad. This is a major departure from previous elections in which political parties campaigned largely along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The election also demonstrates Iraq’s capacity to hold a peaceful and democratic election. That Salim al-Jubouri, the outgoing speaker of parliament and influential Sunni lawmaker, and other powerful politicians were not re-elected is a testament to Iraq’s burgeoning democracy. This is no small accomplishment for a country that only recently shook off dictatorship.
Despite a new sophisticated biometric and computerized voting system, there are allegations of electoral fraud and these should be taken seriously and investigated by an independent agency. The politically motivated allegations by parties and individuals who didn’t do well or lost their seats should not taint an otherwise free and fair election.
Iraq’s democratic political culture is also showing signs of growth. Top Sunni, Shia and Kurdish officials have already congratulated one another on their respective success in the election and all signs suggest that there will be a peaceful transfer of power if Mr. al-Abadi is unable to form a coalition to govern.
Mr. al-Abadi’s bid for a second term as prime minister is in jeopardy after his coalition won only 42 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament. The big winner of the election is anti-American firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr and his coalition, the main components of which are the Sadr Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party, which won 54 seats. Mr. al-Abadi even fell behind Iran-backed Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance and its 47 seats.
Mr. al-Sadr’s electoral victory could dramatically alter Iraq’s political landscape. He is an influential Shia cleric, Iraqi nationalist and a strong opponent of both Iranian interference and American presence in Iraq. Even if Mr. al-Sadr is not instrumental in forming the next government, he and his coalition will be influential in shaping the political trajectory of Iraq.
Although unexpected, these results should not have come as a surprise. For all its progress, Iraq continues to face security, economic and political challenges that place stress on its democracy.
The central issues for voters were the related problems of a stagnant economy and rampant corruption. Mr. al-Sadr shrewdly campaigned on the promise of eradicating corruption from Iraqi politics. Corruption in the government and in society has fostered distrust and disillusionment among Iraqis. While government officials and politicians are lining their pockets with Iraq’s oil wealth, ordinary Iraqis are struggling to make ends meet. Many have become alienated by this widespread corruption.
In a clear demonstration of this alienation, a majority of voters abstained from casting a ballot. The national turnout stands at 44.5 per cent, a figure that would be lower if not for the comparatively higher turnout in the Kurdistan region, which was around 60 per cent. It is true that challenges related to security, millions of internally displaced peoples and complications with the new electronic voting system also contributed to the low turnout. Still, the role of corruption in driving away voters should not be understated.
Political parties and their leaders have begun jockeying to form Iraq’s next coalition government. Who will emerge to govern Iraq for the next four years is uncertain. What we do know is that if corruption continues unchecked, Iraq’s democratic robustness will be put to the test over the coming years.