Originally scheduled for September 2017 but pushed back because of the war against the Islamic State (IS), then delayed again to allow internally displaced people (IDPs) to return home, provincial elections have now been set for May 2018, along with parliamentary elections set for the 12th of May. With reconstruction desperately needed and in the wake of the Iraqi Kurds’ failed independence referendum, these elections hold multiple challenges.
Parliament voted on 22 January to hold legislative and local elections on 12 May, but Iraq’s largest Sunni alliance protested the decision. Raad al-Dahlaki, a senior member of the Alliance of Iraqi Forces, said, “Holding the elections under the current circumstances will represent a military coup against the political process by allowing the ascension of military commanders to assume the government’s political helm.” The United Nations estimates the total number of IDPs – mostly Sunni Arabs from areas previously controlled by IS – is 3 million. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution was ‘the supreme law in Iraq and is binding in all its regions, without any exceptions’, so elections should be held according to the constitutional dates, and Sunnis went along with the election and stopped protesting it.
Political coalitions, 27 in total, are set to dominate the ballot, the main ones being the Shia Nasr coalition led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Shia Fatah alliance led by MP Hadi al-Amiri and the Sunni Nationalist coalition headed by Vice-President Iyad Allawi, with speaker Salim al-Jiburi and former Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak as his key Sunni allies. Other less important Shia groups are the State of Law coalition, led by Nuri al-Maliki, and Sairun, led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Kurds are still recovering from the failed independence referendum on 25 September 2017. Not aligned with any of the coalitions, their political position seems largely irrelevant at the moment. In 2014, al-Abadi formed a government without the Kurds, agreeing instead to share the country’s oil wealth and military resources, which might happen again this time round.
“Prime Minister al-Abadi’s main theme is indicated by the name of his block which is ‘Victory’, [suggesting] that under his leadership his country came back strong and victorious against terrorism,” explained Kirk H. Sowell, editor and publisher of the review Inside Iraqi Politics. “Al-Amiri’s coalition is also based on the theme of victory, but there is a big difference of personality between them, though there is almost no difference between their rhetoric at this point. I think that it will fall into a coalition between al-Abadi and al-Amari.”
It is doubtful whether either man will bring any major changes to Iraq’s political landscape. Both candidates have vague campaign platforms, such as al-Abadi’s promise to fight corruption, which was already used in 2005 and seems a tall order in a parliament where most of the members are corrupt. “Nobody is putting forward any kind of detailed programme,” Sowell said. “No one is advancing a programme explaining how to revitalize the economy, for example. Al-Abadi speaks about the need to grow the economy, as do others, but in very general terms, like promoting the private sector or foreign investment.” Among the issues that are the most important to the Iraqi people – reconstruction, employment and environment – none is addressed directly and precisely.
Candidates face another challenge too: voter turnout is expected to low. There are several reasons for this. The first is very practical, as it is doubtful that all the IDPs will be home to vote by May. The second is widespread disappointment with and resentment towards the current government. “The main question here is: are people going to vote?” said Sowell. “We assume Kurdish and Sunni participation will be depressed, Kurds because they are demoralized, Sunnis because many are still IDPs. But in the Shia areas, people are disappointed, they don’t feel like they are getting anything. It is just going to put the same people back in office, so people might ask why they are voting. That’s a bit of a challenge for al-Abadi to get people to vote for him.”
Since the defeat of IS, steps have to be taken to rebuild, physically and morally, a nation that has once again been shattered. These elections could be another of those steps, but all the signs indicate that they will do little more than maintain the status quo, with the real issues facing Iraqis once again going unaddressed.