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Will Iraqi voters switch from traditional political figures to tribal leaders

Oct 05,2021 - Last updated at Oct 05,2021

Iraqi voters will head to polling stations on October 10 for early legislative elections, the fifth in the last 20 years; two years after mass protests brought down the government of Adil Abdel Mahdi but not before security forces and paramilitary groups killed more than 600 protesters. Back then, angry Iraqis were calling for an end to the sectarian system that resulted in ethno-sectarian violence in addition to creating a corrupt ruling class. Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi promised an early election against claims that the 2018 poll was rigged. He also delivered a new elections law whose aim is to limit the domination of large political parties through a single vote system.

There is pressure on Kadhimi from the same class that has dominated the political scene for years to postpone the elections, but it is too late for him to back down. It is an understatement to say that this election will prove crucial for a country that has been ripped apart by corruption, foreign meddling, paramilitary groups with direct links to Tehran, terrorism, political assassinations and endemic financial problems.

More than 25 million citizens have the right to vote but experts believe there will be an historic low voter turnout. Unlike previous elections, Iraqis outside the country will not be allowed to vote. Candidates will contest 329 seats, 83 of which have been allocated to women and nine to minorities. More than 3,200 candidates are running mostly under party lists and alliances. More than 780 candidates are running as independents.

Traditional parties that have been at the centre of the political scene for years are likely to gain the most. Activists who led the 2019 protests have chosen to boycott the poll. The main players who hope to make gains include the Sadrists, led by firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, which is expected to emerge as the biggest bloc. It is important to note that although the Shiite make up the majority of the population, deep divisions continue to rip parties apart mainly over fealty to Iran. Al Sadr has galvanised support among impoverished Shiites, especially in urban centers, under a nationalist platform that wants to end Iranian influence, expel the Americans and fight rampant corruption.

The second group that is contesting the elections and whose political fate remains unknown is the pro-Iran paramilitary alliance known as Al Fatah Alliance led by Hadi Al Amiri. It includes the political wing of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, which the US has designated a terrorist organisation and also represents the Badr Organisation, which has close ties to Tehran. The leader of Asaib Ahl Al Haq led by Qais Khazali has warned this week of election fraud; a sign that the alliance may not repeat its 2018 success.

Analysts say that a majority of Iraqis are fed up with pro-Iran militia groups and the government’s inability to control them. The new election system, which favours local candidates, may entice voters to switch from traditional political figures, which they accuse of corruption, to tribal leaders. Tribes play a major role in Iraq’s political system and for years tribal leaders had worked closely with the political elite to deliver handpicked candidates. This time, the marriage of convenience may be over.

Shiite voters, especially in the impoverished south, believe they have been let down by traditional political leaders. They also blame successive governments for failing to improve their lives as they continue to suffer from high unemployment and poor public services.

Other Shiite political players who are contesting the elections include a centrist alliance headed by former Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi and the Hikma Movement of moderate Shiite cleric Ammar Al Hakim. Dawa leader and head of State of Law coalition, former Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, a controversial figure blamed for corruption, sectarianism and allowing Daesh to take over one third of the country, may be punished by voters this time around.

Sunni leaders are also divided making their chances of increasing their share in parliament weaker. But the main player is current parliament speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi who is leading the Taqaddum, or progress, alliance which comprises several Sunni leaders from the Sunni-majority north and west of Iraq.  

The Kurds will continue to emerge as a power broker with two main parties participating; the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Observers warn that the elections, which will have 600 international observers, may be marred by violence during and after the vote. But one thing is for sure: the results will fall short of what Iraqi activists want and have called for in 2019. And if the pro-Iran militia candidates perform badly it is certain that they will do their utmost to overturn the results and take the country towards the abyss. But even if the results are accepted it will take weeks and maybe months for blocs to agree on a new government.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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