Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi greets his supporters during an election campaign rally in Najaf, Iraq May 3, 2018 - REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
CAIRO – 7 May 2018: In the first vote since the dramatic rise and fall of ISIS’s territorial control, Iraqis will head to the polls on May 12 to cast their vote in the parliamentary election. The people will elect the 329 members of the Council of Representatives, who will then in turn elect a prime minister and president.
Originally scheduled for September 2017, the national elections were postponed by six months owing to the threat posed by ISIS to the integrity of the vote. While ISIS still poses a military threat to the state and the Iraqi people, following repeated military successes against the terrorist organization, the confidence of the Iraqi security forces has improved, and the Supreme Court ruled that the elections could not be postponed further. Many Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers had asked for the elections to be postponed further to allow for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people to return home.
Notably, this is the first national poll to take place since the independence referendum which took place on September 30 in Iraq Kurdistan. The pro-independence campaign won with an impressive, but largely expected 93 percent of the vote. The jubilation was not to last though, as in the weeks following the vote Iraqi and Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi troops arrived to quell the independence movement. Significant territory was captured by Baghdad-allied forces, notably including the oil rich territory of Kirkuk, which Baghdad claims was being unlawfully administered by the Kurds following their successful battle to liberate the city from the grasp of ISIS.
This is also the first election to take place since protests broke out in July 2015. Transpiring from anti-government protests which initially focused on addressing poor living conditions, the protest movement demanded reform of the political system. It gained significant momentum when it was joined by the Sadrist movement, an Iraqi Shia group, headed by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It began to take on increasingly political motivations, and has called for change to the sectarian quota-based system, a coordinated campaign to eradicate state corruption. However, it has retained its social motivations, demanding better living conditions and better provisions of essential public services.
The elections are taking place in the midst of major security challenges and tests to stability in a country beset with division and consequential discontent. This has affected formal political entities, and has led to divisions between and within major political parties and alliances.
Who is participating?
The 2018 elections are dominated by five Shia coalitions, most notably the Dawa Party, which has split between the Nasr Coalition and the State of Law coalition. The Nasr Coalition is led by incumbent, Haider al-Abadi, who rose to the premiership in 2014, following the rapid territorial expansion of ISIS, the collapse of the Iraqi Army, and the lack of faith in then Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki. Nouri al-Maliki heads the opposing State of Law coalition and currently holds the ceremonial position of vice-president.
The Dawa Party has dominated Iraqi political sphere since 2003, with three successive prime ministers. However, a power struggle between Abadi and Maliki, which followed the latter’s stepping down from power, has shown no signs of repair. Notably, the two rivals possess sharply different opinions on Iranian influence in Iraq. While Maliki has stood with the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi and heralded the strength and importance of its militias, Abadi has shown reservations.
Iraqi militia commander Hadi al-Ameri (R) in the Al-Alam area, on 22 March 2015 - AFP
Arguably, the most significant opposition force to the two Dawa Party figureheads is strongman Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri heads the Badr Organization, a powerful Shiite-dominated militia backed by Tehran, which has been essential to maintaining stability in Iraq and has a strong popular base amongst the majority Shiite community in Iraq. Amiri is closely allied with Iran, and there are fears that he would introduce sectarian policies, similar to those introduced under Maliki’s premiership, which proved to be destructive to Iraqi society.
Amiri initially formed an alliance with Abadi, but later they announced that they would run on separate ballots, with the possibility of forming an alliance after the elections, in order to form a government. Those close to Amiri fall under his Fatah coalition. Because of the schism within the Dawa Party, the support of other Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties will be needed to form a government.
The remaining Shiite coalitions are Sairoon, a collective of candidates under the guidance of Muqtada Sadr, and the Hikma coalition, under the leadership of Ammar al-Hakim.
The domination of ISIS across many Sunni-majority areas has led to much dissatisfaction with the established Sunni political leadership, and concerns with incompetence and corruption run high. Two promising Sunni coalitions exist.
First is Qarar Al-Iraqi, which will run in Sunni dominated areas predominantly in the north of the country. The party is run by Osama al-Nujaifi and Atheel Nujaifi; the former is a vice-president of Iraq, and the latter previously held the position of governor of Mosul.
Ayad Allawi’s Wataniya Alliance, an arguably secular coalition, has attracted the support of Selim Jubouri, the current speaker of Parliament, and is expected to attract Sunni support. Allawi is also a vice-president of Iraq; a country where three individuals hold the position concurrently.
Following the disastrous fallout of the independence referendum, Iraqi Kurdish influence has taken a major downturn. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has suffered from internal divisions following the Baghdad-led attacks on Kirkuk, which has led to the rise of minor parties, such as Goran. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) has largely remained unified.
At a time of internal divisions, external pressures and touch security, economic, and social pressures, these elections come at a crucial time for the Iraqi people. Political maneuvering and alliance forming will play a decisive role following the election, with the possibility that Iraq will lean to the east.