Been there, done that: Iraq’s stagnant democracy

On April 30, 2014, Iraq will hold parliamentary elections to choose the 328 members of the Council of Representatives. These representatives, who are voted for from an open list system of proportional representation using the governorates as the constituencies, will in turn elect the Iraqi president and prime minister. 

What is of interest to all readers is the pre-election politicking, Iraqi-style. Unfortunately, this process includes an unhealthy dose of jostling for power and escalating violence. The candidates who are running for the Iraqi parliament are campaigning on a range of interesting social and political issues, including the lengthy electrical power cuts, poor wastewater treatment, rampant corruption and high unemployment. 

However, the competition between the various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties are also revealing about the nature of Iraq’s practice of the Iraqi style of democracy running under umbrella coalitions. The largest parties on the approved list include the prime minister’s State of Law Coalition, the Sadrist Movement (Ahrar), the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Iraqi National Accord. 

Significant new parties include the former militant group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the White Iraqiya Bloc, which split from the Iraqi National Accord. Part and parcel of Iraqi electoral politics is the uptick in bombings against targets in order to disrupt, shuffle and intimidate the whopping 9000 candidates running in the election, about two weeks away. 

Just this past week, a wave of car bombings hit several, mostly Shiite, neighborhoods of Baghdad, killing at least 16 people and wounding dozens in latest spasm of violence as Iraq prepares to hold the country’s first parliament elections since the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal. 

The explosions, all from parked explosives-laden vehicles, coincided with the anniversary of the 2003 fall of Baghdad at the hands of U.S. troops. The bombings bore the hallmarks of an al Qaeda-inspired group and other Sunni insurgents, who frequently use car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government. 

Ongoing violence in the Anbar Province, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces and Iraqi forces are fighting is preventing electoral participation. The country’s Independent High Electoral Commission announced that balloting would not occur especially given that at this time, ISIS are holding parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and Fallujah. 

Importantly, the coalitions and personalities are still the same as in 2003. The fact that there are multiple umbrella parties featuring old names but under slightly modified electoral blocs is significant in that all these problems are exacerbated by the Iraqi parties and politicians who have ruled the country since 2003: the Shiite coalition that dominated the government followed a sectarian political line that marginalizes the Sunnis. 

The State of Law coalition headed by the current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, along with its National Allied Coalition (Shiite), are likely to receive most of the votes. The Kurdish parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan region will come second, and the Sunni coalitions in the west and middle of Iraq will come in third. Currently, the National Allied Coalition will constitute the biggest bloc in parliament. So what is new? 

Clearly, the Iraqi democratic system is stagnant. By far the biggest issue is who the new parliament will elect as Iraqi prime minister. Maliki still looks to return for a third-term given his backing which includes substantial assistance from Iraq’s neighbor to the east, Iran. The biggest sign of Tehran’s support can be found in Muqtada al-Sadr’s surprise announcement to “retire from politics” in February 2014. 

From a number of different sources, his “retirement” is the direct result of a number of sharp disagreements his party has had with Maliki’s camp and pressure from the Iranians. Al-Sadr’s decision increased Maliki’s chances of increasing his influence which virtually guarantees his third term. Al-Maliki is using the usual tools endemic to Iraq to target and rid himself of rivals. 

He is using the Iraqi court system and accusing them of corruption and/or criminal acts including charges of being former Baathists. There are also reports that Maliki is giving extra electoral cards to the Iraqi armed forces in a tactic that was seen in other MENA states before the Arab Spring. 

So a key question arises about Iraq’s democratic experiment: is Maliki acting and behaving as a post-Saddam enlightened democrat or is he using the very tools used by older regimes throughout the Middle East? The answer is clear. But we should not pick on Maliki alone: with high levels of corruption, bribes for votes are an extremely popular tool. 

Overall, the Iraqi parliamentary elections are shaping up to be a re-run of the elections ever since the fall of Saddam. There will be more pre-election shenanigans that are likely to further illuminate Iraq’s unique form of democracy. Al-Qaeda affiliates will take advantage of the situation but there are likely to be retaliatory attacks on Sunnis by Shiite supporters seeking violent retribution. 

There is also the role of the Kurds who, given their growing independence from Baghdad, actually really care about the electoral results for the Iraqi parliament. Obviously, the importance of the elections is more about the negative manifestations of the process rather than the consequences themselves. 

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.
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