A bitterly divided Iraq prepares for key polls

After Saddam, Iran stepped in to fill political vacuum; pro-Tehran candidates likely to dominate whatever government emerges after May 12 elections

Members of Iraq’s electoral commission material at the commission’s warehouse in the holy city Najaf ahead of the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections.

London: As Iraq prepares for parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12, observers will be watching just how much these polls will differ from those held in the past. This will be the first election since the defeat of Daesh in 2017, and the fourth since the fall of Saddam Hussain’s regime in 2003.

Like in previous elections, the main concerns of ordinary Iraqis continue to be the lack of security and rampant corruption. Like in previous elections, the Shiites, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds remain bitterly divided.

And, like in previous elections, Iran is expected to continue with its meddling, providing financial support to friendly candidates.

After the fall of Saddam’s regime, Iran stepped in to fill the political vacuum in Iraq, especially after the US-led de-Baathifcation process destroyed Iraq’s institutions. Since then, Tehran has been able to exercise its will through a variety of proxies — both politically and militarily.

In the May 12 polls, Iraqis will be voting in 329 new members of parliament, who in turn will elect Iraq’s president and prime minister. What is interesting about this election is that the number of candidates has dropped significantly. In 2014, there were 9,040 candidates; this time round, only 6,904 are running. This is a pattern that seems to be repeated from previous elections.

Chris Doyle, the Director of the London-based Council of Arab-British Understanding, told Gulf News: “For any government to prevail, it is vital that all sectors of society feel they are included and have a stake going forward.”

The Sunni Arabs, in particular, feel marginalised as they did during the 2014 election. Their political parties are expected to perform poorly as they did in 2014 because of deep divisions. The leading Mutahidoun (United) list, headed by parliamentary speaker Usama Al Nujaifi, won only 23 seats across the country. “If division and polarisation continue, a resurgence of terrorism and extremism seems inevitable,” Doyle said.

While Iraq has a functioning parliament, which has regularly been elected every four years, there is a sense in the country that there is no real democracy. “Iran has a huge influence over Iraqi politics, which it will be keen to assert and maintain given the threats [it faces] in Syria,” Doyle said. He pointed out that Iran has allocated “a lot of funds” to ensure its position in the country remains unaltered.

Doyle added that “the US accuses Tehran of using funds to influence the electorate. It is certainly true the current prime minister [Haidar] Al Abadi and chief opponents such as [former prime minister] Nouri Al Maliki are very much backed by Iran”.

In fact, there are very few new faces running this time, which may dissuade many Iraqis from going to the polls.

Despite tensions between the United States and Iran, both remain key allies of Prime Minister Al Abadi’s government.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis last month accused Iran of “mucking around” in Iraq’s upcoming elections, telling reporters the US has what he called “worrisome evidence” that Iran is funnelling “not an insignificant amount of money” into Iraq to try to sway votes. Baghdad rejected the accusation.

Government spokesman Sa’ad Al Hadithi stressed the use of foreign money in domestic politics “is illegal and unconstitutional.”

“The government is taking great efforts to hold free and fair elections and prevent the manipulation of election results,” he said.

Nearly 90 per cent of candidates are incumbents or veteran politicians. It is feared the turnout in this year’s election will be much lower than the 2014 election, which saw around 60 per cent of eligible voters casting their ballots. “I don’t think these elections will differ much from the last three,” Iraqi political commentator Essam Al Khafaji told Gulf News.

The leading Shiite groups are Al Abadi’s Victory Alliance, Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (which is the most loyal to Iran) and the Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform led by maverick Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

Under Saddam, many of Iraq’s Shiite political elite spent years in exile in Iran.

Since Saddam’s ouster, Iraqi markets have been stocked with Iranian goods and millions of Iranian pilgrims descend on Iraq each year to visit holy shrines in the cities of Samarra, Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.

For the first time, Al Sadr’s movement is teaming up with Iraq’s Communist Party — seen by observers as an entirely tactical move.

“While Al Sadr derives his strength from Shiite political Islam, he is carrying a secular banner this time,” Al Khafaji said. Al Sadr appears to be employing ambitious multi-track tactics to simultaneously woo voters disillusioned by the exploitation of religion for political gains, and voters who are sick of Iranian meddling in the country. “This is clear,” Al Khafaji said, “when Al Sadr repeatedly warns against the deceitful guidance of Vilayat Al Faqih, (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei”.

Given the level of division in the country, the most likely scenario will be a hung parliament where any victorious bloc will be unable to form a government without forming coalitions with other parties,” Al Khafaji noted. He said Al Sadr could possibly enter into a political alliance with Al Abadi — who is the likely front-runner given his popularity following the defeat of Daesh.

However, such a coalition is likely to face continued pressure from “the ghost of shadow states” — a reference to the State of Law coalition’s alliance with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias called Hashed Al Shaabi or the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

When entire divisions of Iraq’s military disintegrated following the fall of the city of Mosul to Daesh in the summer of 2014, Iranian influence soared. Weeks before the US began a bombing campaign against Daesh, Iranian advisers and support for Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, helped halt Daesh’ advance, which came dangerously close to Baghdad.

On their part, Sunni Arabs are participating on two different lists: Al Nujaifi’s Mutahidoun and Faiq Al Shaikh Ali’s ‘Civilised Alliance’.

Saleh Al Mutlaq, a longtime Iraqi politician and former deputy prime minister, said he expects candidates with ties to the Shiite militias to do well in upcoming elections. “These elections will be disastrous for this country,” he said. “The Popular Mobilisation Forces will be a key player in the political process and this will give Iran a role and a word in forming the government and in choosing a prime minister.”

The Kurds are competing on their traditional lists, the Democratic Union Party (of Masoud Barzani) and the Patriotic Union Party (of Jalal Talabani).

The third Kurdish group running independently in the elections is called Coalition for Democracy and Justice, led by Barham Saleh, a former prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.

— With inputs from agencies


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