Anil Trigunayat

Democracy’s downside is the prevailing dissatisfaction among those who lose an election. But then they have a hope that next time round they have a chance. Democracy is a state of mind, and the mindsets do take time to change. But democratic practices and institutions do not essentially follow the Westminster or western model of governance.

One size does not fit all has been clearly evident all across especially in new democracies where the autocrats have been moved out particularly in the wake of Arab Spring through public revolt or through the regime change agenda in countries like Iraq or a mix of the two. It is also proving increasingly relevant that local socio-economic conditions and popular aspirations and affiliations tribal or religious tend to bring a somewhat known perspective to the idea and practice of democracy in a given context.

Iraq is no different. The problem is somewhat like Lebanon were to accommodate different religion and faith-based political entities provisions are made for them to be represented in a confessional setting of power structures. Hence, government formations have been a tiresome effort. But whether such fault lines will also transition into difficult red lines is a matter of time.

Iraq has suffered for over two decades through the ravages of war and has been trying to find political stability and economic resurgence which are so intricately connected. Frequent changes in political leaders also driven by popular discontent and continuing protests have led to the overall instability and ineffectiveness of shared governance structures. The emergence of politico-religious dispensations with their international benefactors and connections add to the charge.

Iraq can legitimately claim to have conducted elections to the bicameral legislature under the 1925 constitution when it had a constitutional monarchy. But conditions have not been always ripe for the democratic process. The sixth elections, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were only held on October 10 after being postponed since June this year as the Independent Election Commission did not find the conditions fit enough for a free and fair election. In any case, these were called up a year early by PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi (appointed in May 2020) to assuage the Iraqi people protesting against poor services, rampant corruption, and youth unemployment.

25 million voters were slated to elect 329 members of the Council of Representatives who in turn will elect the President and confirm the Prime Minister. 25% of all seats have been reserved for women candidates across 83 constituencies. In fact, 29% of the total aspirants (3249) were women contestants, which is quite remarkable. But the dismay of the electorate was quite palpable as a mere 36% of the voters turned up, which was the lowest since 2003.

Ordinary Iraqis do not place great faith in the process as it decries the entrenched, inefficient, and corrupt political elite. They fear more of the same. But the UNSC condemned the efforts of some to discredit the legitimacy of the elections which its mission in Iraq had duly certified to be ‘technically well managed and generally peaceful election’.

Prime Minister Kadhimi has been trying hard to find a balance between his western proclivities and Tehran’s influence since he took over. He has also tried to regain Iraq’s role in Arab affairs by trying to mediate between arch-enemies Saudi Arabi and Iran. He has been a sleuth heading the National Intelligence Agency and was instrumental in the fight against the ISIL.

He is also close to Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. But in the elections, Iran-backed militias did not do well and hence have been discrediting the vote and asking for a recount. On November 7 there was an assassination attempt on Kadhimi who was injured and the blame was passed onto the militias affiliated to Tehran as they have also been engaged in attacks in Green Zone in recent times. They do not want an independent Kadhimi to have a second term.

There were some upsets and unexpected windfalls in the election. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes the foreign interference and US presence has tried to distance from the Iran-backed militias by taking a more nationalistic approach, got 20 additional seats, consolidating his leadership status as the single largest bloc in the 329-member parliament. His Sairoon Alliance secured 73 seats. A Sunni faction headed by Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi came in second with 38 seats replacing the spot the Iranian-backed militias had secured in 2018.

Pro-Iran Fatah Alliance could only get 15 seats which also avers to the fact that dictating foreign-backed militias may have run their course. Kurdish parties won 61 seats. Former PM Nouri al Maliki’s Shia party State of Law Coalition was able to secure 37 seats. Of course, the calls of a ‘Vote Fraud’ by the losers are a normal accusation in any democratic election but low turnout adds to the popular concern.

To assuage the concerns and to ensure the credibility of the process UNSC also asked for a transparent judicial review. Even the Iranian IRGC’s Al Quds Commander General Ismail Qa’ani urged Iraqis to respect the results of the elections. But then the well-entrenched interests have their own dynamic.

As is the complexity of the installation process as well as the history of government formation indicates it will be months of negotiations and permutations and combinations before a coalition representing at least 165 members of parliament can be formed and a prime minister elected.

Until then Iraqi people will have to suffer the brunt of economic difficulties and political uncertainty which is so very implicit in the confessionally driven governance structures. As the political parties are continuing to bicker over election results there is some talk of a Provisional Government to be formed which would also not be an easy option given the trust deficit and rigid positions on the likely formula or pollical influence vs seats won by a party.

Iraq does need an inclusive and forward-looking government to address long-awaited reforms and to meet the aspirations of the deprived people who have suffered far too long in this unending transition.

First Published in Vivekananda International Foundation Elections in Iraq – Uncomfortable Outcome on November 17, 2021.

Read another piece on COP by Anil Trigunayat titled COP- Cacophony of Promises in IMPRI Insights

About the Author

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Anil Trigunayat, former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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