EXPLAINER: Why are the elections in Iraq important to the world?

Sunday’s Iraqi elections present enormous challenges: the Iraqi economy has been battered by years of conflict, rampant corruption and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. State institutions are failing, the country’s infrastructure is collapsing. Powerful paramilitary groups increasingly threaten state authority, and hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced after years of war against ISIS.

While few Iraqis expect a significant change in their daily lives, the parliamentary elections will shape the direction of Iraq’s foreign policy at a key time in the Middle East, including as Iraq serves mediator between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“The Iraqi elections will be watched by everyone in the region to determine how the country’s future leadership will influence the regional balance of power,” said Marsin Alshamary, Iraqi-American researcher at the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School.

So what are the main things to watch out for?



Elections are held early, in response to mass protests that erupted in 2019. This is the first time a vote has taken place due to demands from Iraqi protesters on the streets. The vote is also taking place under a new electoral law that divides Iraq into smaller constituencies – another demand from young activists – and allows more independent candidates.

A UN Security Council resolution passed earlier this year authorized an expanded team to monitor the elections. There will be up to 600 international observers in place, including 150 from the United Nations.

Iraq is also introducing biometric cards for voters for the first time. To prevent abuse of electronic voter cards, they will be deactivated for 72 hours after each person has voted, in order to avoid double voting.

But despite all of these measures, allegations of voice-buying, intimidation and manipulation have persisted.



Groups from Iraqi Shiite factions dominate the electoral landscape, as has been the case since the overthrow of Saddam, when the country’s power base shifted from the Sunni minority to the Shiite majority.

But Shiite groups are divided, especially over the influence of neighboring Iran, a Shiite power. A close race is expected between the political bloc of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the biggest winner in the 2018 elections, and the Fatah Alliance led by paramilitary leader Hadi al-Ameri, who came second.

The Fatah Alliance includes parties affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coordination group of mainly pro-Iranian Shiite militias that rose to prominence during the war against the extremist Sunni group Islamic State. It includes some of the toughest pro-Iranian factions, such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. Al-Sadr, a nationalist and populist leader, is also close to Iran, but publicly rejects its political influence.

Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite militia with close ties to Iran, is field candidates for the first time.



Activists and young Iraqis who took part in the protests calling for change were divided over whether to participate in the vote.

The 2019 protests were met with deadly force, with at least 600 people killed over a span of a few months. Although authorities caved in and called for snap elections, the death toll and brutal crackdown prompted many young activists and protesters who took part in the protests to later call for a boycott.

A series of targeted kidnappings and assassinations which killed over 35 people, further discouraged many from participating.

Iraq’s highest Shiite dignitary and widely respected authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for broad participation, saying voting remains the best way for Iraqis to participate in building their country’s future .

The 2018 election saw a record turnout with just 44% of eligible voters voting. The results have been widely disputed.

We fear a similar or even lower participation this time.

Mustafa al-Jabouri, a 27-year-old private sector worker, says he will not vote after seeing his friends killed in the protests, “in front of my eyes.”

“I have participated in every election since I was 18. We always say change will come and things will get better. What I saw is that things always go from bad to worse, ”he said, smoking a hookah in a cafe in Baghdad. “Now the same faces from the same parties are posting campaign posters. “



Iraq’s vote comes amid a wave of diplomatic activity in the region, in part spurred by the gradual withdrawal of the Biden administration from the Middle East and icy ties with Arabia’s traditional ally Arabia. Current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has sought to portray Iraq as a neutral mediator in the region’s crises. In recent months, Baghdad has hosted several rounds of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. in order to ease tensions.

Alshamary, the researcher, said the Arab states would monitor the gains of pro-Iranian factions in the vote and, conversely, Iran would examine the plight of Western-leaning politicians. “The outcome of these elections will have an impact on foreign relations in the region for years to come,” she said.

Under Iraqi laws, the winner of Sunday’s vote can choose the country’s next prime minister, but it is unlikely that any of the competing coalitions can secure a clear majority. This will require a long process involving behind-the-scenes negotiations to select a consensus prime minister and agree on a new coalition government.

Randa Slim, of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said Iraq’s regional mediating role is al-Kadhimi’s success as a result of his success in balancing US and Iranian interests in Iraq.

“If he will not be the next prime minister, all of these initiatives might not be supported,” Slim said.


Karam reported from Beirut.

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