Saturday, October 23, 2021

Iraq's Parliamentary Elections: A First Step Towards a True Democracy in Iraq?

The engineer candidate - Reem 'Abd al-Khaliq 'Abd al-Hadi
On October 3rd, Iraq held parliamentary elections.  Although the results were not officially announced until October 17th, many analysts, both Iraqi and foreign, were quick to decry the results.  In particular, they pointed to the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party to win an estimated 73 seats in Iraq’s 329 member parliament and the elections’ low turnout rate, between 38 and 41%.  However, were the elections really the failure that many analysts would have us believe? 

The role of youth in the struggle for global democracy has yet to receive the analytic attention it deserves.  Youth democracy promotion movements from Hong Kong to Chile have shaken the political order in all regions of the world.  In 2011, the Middle East experienced the Arab Spring, largely led by youth.  While suppressed, more sophisticated and successful youth democracy promotion movements have recently been organized in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.  

Unlike the Arab Spring uprisings, these movements have framed their demands in a more coherent manner by calling for an end to state corruption and nepotism, universal political participation, improved social services, gender equality and an end to sectarianism.  What role are youth playing in promoting democracy, especially under regimes characterized by extensive corruption and criminality such as Iraq? Eric Davis comments on the Iraqi elections on al-Siyaaq Television  


Since it began in October 2019, Iraq’s youth-led October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) has had a number of successes in its efforts to fight the massive corruption which engulfs the Iraqi state and to curtail the power of pro-Iranian militias.  Ongoing protests forced the resignation of Iraq’s prime minister, ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi, who was known for his corruption, in November 2019.  Subsequently, Iraqi youth prevented the appointment of two other candidates, neither of whom was supportive of democracy, proposed by the ruling elite.  Finally, during the spring of 2020, a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was sympathetic to the protestors’ demands, took office.  

After the new prime minister took office, the supporters of the October Revolution were able to force Iraq’s Council of Deputies (parliament) to enact a new voting law, based on single member districts where the candidate with the majority of votes wins a parliamentary seat.  Thus, the October Revolution was able to eliminate the party list or “quota” system, which insured that a small group of parties would continue to dominate Iraq’s Council of Deputies.  The new electoral law was critical in making it possible for a number of reformers and supporters of Thawrat Tishreen to win seats in the new Iraqi parliament.  


After the Islamic State seized one-third of Iraq’s territory in 2014, including Mosul, its second largest city, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the world’s Shica who resides in al-Najaf inIraq, called on all Iraqis to mobilize to defeat the Islamic State forces which were moving towards Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.  Existing militias, formed after Saddam was toppled in 2003, and myriad new ones, were formed. Iran supported these militias which, together with US and Iranian forces, finally defeated the terrorist organization in March 2019. 


After the destruction of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate,” Iraq’s militias refused to put down their arms.  Since 2014, they have become an armed force which is as powerful as the Iraqi Army.  Through the efforts of pro-Iranian Iraqi political parties, many militia members have joined the Ministry of Interior’s security forces.  The militias, most of which are loyal to Iran, have morphed into crime syndicates.  They control large parts of Iraq’s economy and engage in the smuggling of oil, automobiles and consumer durables, extortion, extracting bribes in the distribution of government contracts, and the trafficking of arms.  


Iraq’s ruling elite, especially its powerful pro-Iranian wing, has been loathe to make concessions to the demands of youth who support the October Revolution.  In Iraq, youth comprise 70% of the population under 30, as in many MENA region countries.  Over 600 demonstrators have been killed by government security forces, primary by those of the Ministry of Interior, and over 24,000 wounded, kidnapped, and tortured.  

Despite the violent repression, the October Revolution protests have remained peaceful.  Because their demands reflect the preferences of the large majority of Iraqis, especially an end to corruption, the improvement of social services, and ending Iran’s political and economic power in Iraq, they are supported by a large segment of the population. 

Many eligible voters boycotted the recent parliamentary elections which were held this past October 3rd Many Iraqis, who oppose government corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s internal affairs, thought that Iran’s militias would rig the elections so that their candidates would win. Nevertheless, to the delight of most Iraqis, candidates affiliated with Iraq’s militia movement (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) fared poorly in the elections and lost seats in parliament.  

On the other hand, reformers and supporters of the October Revolution, many of whom represented newly formed political parties, performed well in the elections.  If they jin with independents who were elected, including a segment of the 97 women who were elected, of which 57 weren't elected through the dominant parties, they could control over 40 seats.

Despite efforts by pro-Iranian militias to characterize the election results as fraudulent, and part of an international conspiracy against them, the elections results have been certified by Iraq’s Election Commission. Iran is deeply concerned that the elections may indicate it is losing its grip on Iraq's polticidal system. This concern explains the vicious campaign the militias have mounted against the head of the United Nations Aid Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) which it accuses of having manipulated the election results as part of a foreign conspiracy against Iran 


The relative success of the October Revolution calls attention to the historical memory of Iraq’s powerful nationalist movement which pre-dated Saddam Husayn’s Bacthist regime (1968-2003).  This nationalist movement included all sectors of Iraq’s diverse ethno-confessional society, including Shica and Sunni Arabs, Jews, Christians, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious groups.  

I show that many of the youth who organized and are leading the October revolution carry on a tradition of their elders who socialized them into the ecumenical and inclusive discourse of what I call “Iraqist nationalism” (as opposed to Pan-Arabism which the majority of Iraqis rejected). I develop this theme in my study, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. 

Many Iraqis support the October Revolution not only due to its democratic and anti-corruption message, but due to its reestablishing a strong of Iraqi nationalism as well.  This “Iraqist nationalism,” i.e., an Iraq-centered nationalism, was transmitted through urban extended family networks during Bacthist rule as youth were informed that Saddam’s authoritarian and exclusivist regime, expressed in efforts to indoctrinate youth in the education system and youth groups, ran counter to Iraq’s traditional political culture. 

This inclusive political culture, which was transmitted through “home schooling,”  was codified during the June through October 1920 Revolution against British control of Iraq (known as the “Great Iraqi Revolution,” of al-Thawra al-cIraqiya al-Kubra) which involved the participation of all Iraq’s confessional groups – Muslims, Jewish and Christian, and ethnic groups. 

The Iraqi case fails to support the conceptual frame of an “Arab democracy deficit.”  In its promotion of social democracy, namely a political system which cares for the less fortunate in society, its support for gender equality (as seen in the large number of women who play prominent roles in the October Revolution), and its rejection of sectarianism, Iraq’s youth have mobilized significant support for democracy. They also have created a focus on corruption and the new to use Iraq’s oil wealth to improve social services and create more jobs for Iraq’s large youth demographic. 

Compared to the lack of success in other Arab countries, such as the recent democratic backsliding in Tunisia, initially viewed as the only Arab Spring success story, the Iraqi case calls for examining whether democracy without material support, which establishes the bases for hope in the future, is a viable scenario in developing countries. The Iraqi case, where elections have been conducted since 2005, demonstrates the potential weakness of kleptocratic regimes when massive corruption marginalizes large segments of the citizenry in a setting of purported democratic governance.   

Despite the massive corruption, it noteworthy that Iraq has conducted fair and free elections for a decade and a half.  It is true that there were efforts to affect the elections through bribery and even threats.  However. overall it is remarkable that thousands of Iraqi have proposed themselves as candidates for the country's parliament anf numerous political parties have been formed.  Although Iraq has nowhere near gender equality in any aspect of civil society and the public sphere, women have played an active role in politics, as candidates, as members of parliament and as voters.

Compared to many other countries, especially those in the Arab world, this uninterrupted holding of democartic elections is a record of which Iraqis can be proud.  That Iraq has developed a powerful youth democracy movement which emphasizes the right of citizens, and particularly the most needy members of society, to receive properly government funded and administered social services, is anti-sectarian, supports gender equality ,and seeks to end government corruption and nepotism, is a remarkable development in itself   


How Iraqi youth developed their ideas of democracy which, through much of the street art the October Revolution has produced (examples are included in my presentation), was an extensive understanding of history.  This comprehension includes the contributions of Iraq’s ancient civilizations, e.g., the first use of the term “freedom” as understood in modern usage, the first parliament, the first language and the first legal code by Hammurabi (which incorporates concern for the less fortunate of society), as well as the contributions of Iraq’s powerful 20th century nationalist movement.  In my future research, I seek to develop a better understanding of the democratic youth movement in Iraq.