BAGHDAD – Iraq’s elections on Sunday come with enormous challenges: Iraq’s economy battered by years of conflict, endemic corruption and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

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State institutions are failing, the country’s infrastructure is crumbling.

Powerful paramilitary groups increasingly threaten state authority, and hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced from years of war against the Islamic State group.

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While some Iraqis look forward to meaningful changes in their day-to-day lives, elections to parliament will shape the direction of Iraq’s foreign policy at a critical time in the Middle East, with Iraq mediating between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Is.

Marcin Alshamri, Iraqi-American research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said: “Iraq’s elections in the region will be closely watched to determine how the country’s future leadership will affect the regional balance of power. “

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So, what are the main things to look for?

many before

The elections are being held early in response to the massive protests that began in 2019.

This is the first time that the streets are voting because of the demands of Iraqi protesters. The vote is also taking place under a new election law that divides Iraq into smaller constituencies – another demand from youth activists – and allows for more independent candidates.

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

Iraq is also introducing biometric cards for first time voters. To prevent misuse of Electronic Voter Cards, they will be deactivated for 72 hours after each person casts his vote, to avoid double voting.

But despite all these measures, the claims of vote buying, intimidation and manipulation remain the same.

Shia Division

Groups drawn from Iraq’s Shia factions dominate the electoral landscape, as has been the case since Saddam’s coup, when the country’s power base shifted from minority Sunnis to majority Shiites.

But Shia groups are divided, particularly over the influence of neighboring Iran, a Shia powerhouse.

The biggest winner in the 2018 election is expected to be a tight race between the political faction of influential Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr and the Fatah coalition led by second-place paramilitary leader Hadi al-Ameri.

The Fatah Alliance consists of parties affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly pro-Iranian Shia militias that rose to prominence during the war against the Sunni extremist Islamic State group.

This includes some of the most staunch pro-Iranian factions such as the Assab Ahl al-Haq militia. Nationalist and populist leader al-Sadr is also close to Iran, but publicly dismisses its political influence.

Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shia militia with close ties to Iran, is fielding a candidate for the first time.

call for boycott

Activists and young Iraqis participating in the protests calling for change are divided over whether to participate in the vote.

The 2019 demonstrations were met with deadly force, killing at least 600 people over a period of a few months.

Although the authorities conceded and called the election prematurely, the death toll and heavy crackdown prompted many youth activists and protesters, who participated in the protests and later called for a boycott.

A series of kidnappings and targeted killings that killed more than 35 people has discouraged many from taking part.

Iraq’s top Shia cleric and widely respected authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for a larger turnout, saying voting is the best way for Iraqis to shape their country’s future.

The 2018 elections saw a record low turnout, with only 44% of eligible voters voting. The results were widely disputed.

This time it is expected that the turnout will be equal or even less.

Mustafa al-Jabouri, a 27-year-old private sector employee, says he will not vote after his friends were killed in demonstrations “before my eyes”.

Smoking hookah, he said, “I have participated in every election since I was 18. We always say that change will come, and things will get better. What I have observed is that things always go from bad to worse. ” A coffee shop in Baghdad. “Now it is the same faces who are from the same parties putting up the propaganda posters.”

regional influence

Iraq’s vote comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region, partly driven by the Biden administration’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East and icy ties with traditional ally Saudi Arabia.

Current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has sought to portray Iraq as a neutral mediator in the region’s woes. In recent months, Baghdad has hosted several rounds of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran to defuse tensions.

Research fellow Alshamri said Arab states would be watching to see how pro-Iranian groups benefit in the vote and, conversely, Iran would see how Western-leaning politicians perform. “The outcome of these elections will have a bearing on foreign relations in the region for years to come,” he said.

Under Iraq’s laws, the winner of Sunday’s vote has the right to choose the country’s next prime minister, but it is unlikely that any of the competing coalitions can win a clear majority. This would require a lengthy process that has involved previous 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 an achievement of al-Kadhimi, a result of his success in striking a balance between US and Iranian interests in Iraq.

“All these initiatives cannot be sustained if he is not the next prime minister,” Slim said.

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Karam reported from Beirut.