CAIRO - 12 May 2018: The Iraqi people headed to polling stations to cast their ballots on Saturday, in the most unpredictable election in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
The May 12 election comes five months after the defeat of IS by the Iraqi army, aided by U.S. military chiefs, and eight months after the independence referendum of the Kurdistan region, where 93 percent of Kurds voted in favor of a split from Baghdad.
The country, which has experienced all evils of modern history, including dictatorship, terrorism, sectarianism, genocide, invasion and occupation, has sank into deep division between religious groups, political parties, coalitions and the terrorism that still lures its youth.
Now the nation has commenced a period of electoral silence until the 8,959 polling stations open their doors across the nation, where more than 24 million citizens will cast their ballots to choose between 320 political parties with 7,367 candidates.
Division between religious and political groups
The Iraqi society consists of three main ethnic and religious components – the majority Shiite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds – who have been at loggerheads for decades, and the sectarian rifts are as apparent as ever 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Ever since the longtime dictator fell in 2003, ending decades of dominance by the Sunni minority, the country has been ruled by a three-legged table system; the prime minister is Shiite, the parliament speaker is Sunni and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd, with all three being chosen by the parliament.
But this consensus couldn’t end the historical conflict between the religious rivals, as each one continued to blame the other for the country’s failure and the tragic conditions of its citizens.
The scene had worsened with the added new component, the Islamic State (IS), which turned most of Iraq’s cities into a bloodbath to win a new spot in their so-called caliphate. IS killed anyone not with them, including Christians, Yazidis, Shiites and non-obedient Sunnis.
Those rivals will not accept unsatisfying results at the ballot boxes, which could lead to a civil war, like former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned of – or threatened – a few days ago in a televised interview.
Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate after the closing of ballot boxes during the parliamentary election in Sadr city district of Baghdad, Iraq May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Wissam Al-Okili
Dilemma of displaced citizens
The existence of IS and the war against the terrorist organization in 2017 left millions of citizens in displacement camps – 2.5 million, according to United Nations statistics in March 2018.
This could be the biggest challenge to the Iraqi government due to the impossibility of issuing electoral tickets to all of them or opening polling stations in all camps across the nation, not to mention candidates taking advantage of displaced citizens’ unfortunate conditions and attempting to buy their votes.
Polling centers have been set up for many of the country’s 2 million people who remain displaced by the war against ISIS. (Reuters)
The militias that control most of Iraq
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory against IS in December 2017 after sweeping all cities from the terrorist plague; although, he couldn’t make it on his own or even with U.S. support, as he needed the aid of other militias, like the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization militias, who are now demanding their reward, a piece of the Iraqi territories and a part in governance. Those militias have already committed violent attacks against citizens to force them to vote in favor of their electoral list.
Hours after opening the doors of polling stations, several Iraqi media outlets and citizens reported assaults against voters to force them vote for specific candidates.
Islamic State threatens to attack polling stations
IS warned in March that it would attack polling stations in Iraq during the parliamentary election, and that anyone who participated in the vote would be considered an infidel.
In an audio message released late Sunday, the militant group’s spokesman accused Iraq’s Shiite-led government of being a proxy of Iran, warning that anyone who runs or votes in the May 12 election would be targeted. Two explosions have been witnessed at polling stations since the beginning of the day, which could restrain citizens from going to polling stations.
Iraqi security forces stand guard outside a polling station during the parliamentary election in the Sadr city district of Baghdad, Iraq May 12, 2018. (Reuters)
Kurds’ anticipation to partake in next government
The failure of the Kurdish independence referendum to split from Baghdad has left the Kurds with the feeling of resentment, especially after the punitive measures taken by Baghdad following the referendum.
Last September, nearly 93 percent of the people in the region of northern Iraq expressed their desire for independent governance through ballot boxes; that desire was met with a fierce response from Baghdad, which cut off all ways leading to the region, suspended all state employees’ salaries and froze all its funds. Also, in March 2018, the parliament approved the 2018 budget, cutting 5 percent from Kurdistan’s usual share in the budget – 17 percent since 2003 – to 12.76 percent.
Cautiously, Kurds decided to participate in the ongoing election, with hopes of being part of the next government and negotiating the terms of reclaiming the disputed areas, especially in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk; however, this will is highly questionable if Maliki wins a third term.
Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani casts his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Erbil, Iraq May 12, 2018. (Reuters)
Apparently, Maliki would do anything to become prime minister again – making threats, offering promises and forming coalitions.
In April, he proposed a new system of governance, the absolute majority, which would allow his Daawa Party to govern with no partners. This cancels the quota scheme Maliki himself initiated in 2006 – an early alert that Maliki’s winning means unrest destabilizes the political scene.
Iraqi Vice President and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attends to cast his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Iran-U.S. battle in Iraq
The U.S. and Iran are competing over the loyalty of Iraqi leaders; both are pouring money and military aid into the country in a bid to find a footing in the policymaking of the country. It is no wonder then that one finds some candidates publically talking on behalf of the two sponsors instead of speaking for their own people.
Abadi’s failure to counter corruption
Since the victory over IS, Abadi made promises of defeating the rampant corruption as well, but it seems that corruption is way harder to defeat than terrorism. The prime minister faces accusations of covering up for the corrupt governmental officials for personal interests, especially since some of them belong to his party. However, counter-corruption will be the key criteria for choosing the parliament that will choose the next prime minister.
PM Haider al-Abadi having his biometric voting card checked with his fingerprint upon arriving at a poll station in the capital Baghdad, May 12, 2018. (AFP)
The war against IS has left entire cities in rubble, and Abadi has failed to attract foreign investment to reconstruct the war-torn country; thus, the Iraqi voter will keep lobbying abilities in mind when they choose their next prime minister.
A member of the Federal Police walks in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 8, 2017/Reuters: Alaa Al-Marjani