ABSTRACT: This piece considers whether an early election in Iraq will lead to change, or merely reinforce the status quo and current power structure. Considering the key challenges confronting Iraq’s democratic process and genuine popular participation across the country, this piece highlights the ongoing and polarizing public debate in Iraq regarding whether early elections will take place on the planned date of October 10, or their possible postponement to 2022. However, this debate bears no effect on whether or not these elections will make any actual difference in the political process. This piece argues that rather than being a vehicle for political change and reform, an early election will likely only serve to legitimize Iraq’s political dysfunction and the existing status quo.
In January 2021, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for early parliamentary elections, to be held on October 10 of this year. Al-Kadhimi came to office in May 2020, replacing Adel Abdul Mahdi who resigned amid a bloody crackdown against protesters who demanded his ousting and many other political changes. Since October 2019, mass demonstrations, known as the “Tishreen Revolution,” started in Baghdad and other Shia-majority provinces in central and southern Iraq. Protesters demanded an end to corruption, better living conditions, independence from regional and global powers such as Iran and the United States, and most importantly, the downfall of the political regime entrenched in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion.
The protests sent shockwaves through Iraq’s political system, state-society relations, and even people’s identities. They forced the Abdul Mahdi government to resign, and pressured Iraq’s major political players, specifically within the Shia community, to nominate a prime minister who was endorsed by the street.[i] The decision to hold early elections in Iraq was one of the 2019 October protest movement’s demands, and a promise made by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s government. Calls for early elections were part of a sweeping demands for changes to Iraq’s political process towards legitimacy, functionality and inclusivity. The new government therefore was formed on two key promises: to prepare the country for early elections, and bring to justice the murderers of hundreds of young protesters killed during the protests.[ii]
However, eighteen months on from the formation of the current government, no one has been held accountable for the killing of protesters, journalists and activists, and the political environment is anything but ideal for elections. There is currently a heated debate in Iraq around whether these early elections will take place on the planned date, or will be further postponed to 2022. The real debate, however, should be about whether these elections will make any difference or not.
With less than four months to go to the planned date, tensions are high between the government and factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), which have been accused of carrying out repeated attacks on protesters, activists, as well as military bases of US-led international coalition present in Iraq. These activities have raised questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to organize fair elections free from fear and security concerns. Given the current climate of political uncertainty and insecurity, early elections may not only fall short of protesters’ demands but may even further threaten to reinforce the very system rejected by protesters. Instead of being a vehicle for political change and reform, elections would only serve to legitimize the status quo and political dysfunction in Iraq.