In response to the massive protest movement in 2019, Iraq holds its snap parliamentary elections on Sunday amid calls for a boycott, growing mistrust of the existing political system and a crippled economy exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – but there is also a glimmer of hope.
Early elections emerged as one of the key demands of the fast-paced bloody demonstrations that swept through Baghdad and Iraq’s southern region in 2019. was to get more response from the previously estranged people, many of whom took part in the protests.
Yet many protesters have continued to argue that a lack of systematic reforms away from the largely clunky and corrupt system means there is little hope for real change to tackle the problems that still cripple Iraq to this day – a country that has only recently emerged from nearly two decades of violence and conflict, from the US-led invasion in 2003 to the fight against the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
Despite advocating for electoral reforms and early elections, many of these protesters are now calling for a boycott of the vote, ahead of a potentially low turnout.
Many who support the boycott have pointed to an electoral environment in which activists have fallen victim to targeted assassination campaigns, mostly blamed on pro-Iranian militia groups, and the establishment’s unwillingness to give up power as a motivation for disengagement.
“You rebel against the government and get killed later, or you vote for the same establishment you took to the streets to try to uproot — that’s not a real choice,” said Ahmed al-Tannoury, a university student in the United States. States. southern city of Basra that joined the massive protest in 2019.
“I’m not going to vote to give any sense of legitimacy to the status quo.”
Ahmed is not the only Iraqi boycotting the elections. Many protesters who once demanded a systematic change in government told Al Jazeera they were not going to the polls.
These are, as categorized by some experts, “ideological boycotts” that use their anti-election vote to delegitimize the establishment.
“For them, boycotting means staying true to the purpose of the October protests,” said Taif Alkhudary, an Iraqi political researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). “Instead of voting, they want to stay out of the system and call for a complete overhaul of the system.”
However, election boycotts aimed at delegitimizing the government are not new in Iraq. Calls have been made to avoid previous elections, which consequently had little effect on changing the endemic corruption among the ruling elite.
“Boycotts have almost never been a determining factor in Iraqi politics. Despite all the boycotts after 2003, the government continued to rule,” explains Hamzed Hadad, a political analyst who focuses on Iraq.
Despite some activists’ appeals to voters to stay away from the polls, others formed their own political parties, some of which are taking part in the upcoming elections. For example, the Imtidad movement, led by Alaa al-Rikabi, is competing for seats in parliament, hoping to change the system from within.
As such, not everyone believes that boycotts do not benefit the protesters.
“Right now you don’t have that many options, so it’s best to go out and vote so the reformists can sit down at the table to achieve tangible goals in Iraqi society,” Rahman Aljebouri, a senior fellow at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, said.
‘Don’t feel like voting’
However, for many people who decided not to vote, the dominant factor is the feeling of apathy from years of shuffling within the establishment that brought nominal positive changes.
After years of conflict and poor governance, many Iraqis have lost hope of improving the country through the actions of the ruling class.
“Nothing is going to change, whatever the outcome of the election,” said Mustafa, a 24-year-old Nasiriya resident, who asked to be identified only by his first name. “I don’t think anyone in the government is going to fix this country, so there’s no point in me voting.”
The same power groups that benefited from the post-2003 muhasasa systemAccording to LSE professor Toby Dodge, the ethnic-sectarian power-sharing arrangement that has been a defining feature of Iraqi politics is likely to emerge triumphant in the election.
“These new laws still favor those who have a nationwide organization with money and network,” Dodge said. “The big old parties that were responsible for setting up the system in 2005 will continue to dominate the system.”
The determining factor
However, a recent statement from Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Iraqi Shia spiritual leader and the group’s most influential Muslim scholar, could change the picture.
“While not without some flaws, it remains the best way to achieve a peaceful future and avoids the risk of falling into chaos and political obstruction,” al-Sistani’s statement read.
For many politically apathetic Shia voters, al-Sistani’s approval is likely to be the determining factor in their decision to vote or not, even if they don’t believe that real change can be achieved through the ballot box.
“Voter turnout could be slightly higher than 2018 when it dipped below 50 percent, especially after al-Sistani’s statement,” Hamzeh Hadad said.
“While voter registration has already ended, al-Sistani’s encouragement could mean more people who had already registered but previously decided not to vote would eventually vote.”
System change unlikely
Regardless of the turnout, however, many believe that a systematic change of the status quo is unlikely. Some analysts have said that the international community’s diminished focus on Iraq and the subsequent lack of pressure have actually given the government the green light not to push for drastic change.
“There probably won’t be any direct confrontations between the establishment and international society, because as long as Iraq remains somewhat stable as it is now, the world would probably be fine,” said Lahib Higel, a senior Iraq analyst at Crisis Group.
In this crisis-ravaged country, no political party is expected to win a majority vote, meaning it would take months to form a coalition government.
The influential Sadrist movement, led by the nationalist icon Muqtada Sadr, who has emerged in Iraqi politics as a vocal opponent of any foreign influence, and the Iran-affiliated Fateh group are likely to lead the parliament seats. A subsequent candidate for a compromise prime minister, such as current interim prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhami, is therefore a likely outcome.
What exactly that would mean for the lives of Iraqis remains uncertain. The violently crushed Tishreen movement and the next targeted assassination campaign against anti-Iran critics fundamentally changed the Iraqis’ will and tactics to voice their grievances.
The protests may not return to their original form, but without addressing the systemic problems, the lingering discontent could spark another round of public anger, analysts say.
“Anything can happen in Iraq — unless you suddenly have 24 hour electricity and a booming economy, anything can spark protests,” Hadad said.