Could democracy actually work in Iraq? For the first time in ten years, Iraqis went to the polls this week to elect provincial councils. The previous ones had been postponed and then never held again due to the liberation of a third of Iraq from the hands of ISIS and the chaos after that war. Turnout was even lower than at the last parliamentary elections: just over forty percent, and in parts of Baghdad not even twenty percent.
Citizens’ trust in the government is at a historic low. The corruption, the lack of progress, the failure to provide citizens with electricity and water, youth unemployment, and poverty – these have now become familiar problems. Added to this is that the winner of the last parliamentary elections, the rebellious cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who soon after frustrated threw in the towel, has called for a boycott of these elections.
Due to his actions, the parties are back in power that had to leave the field under pressure from the youth protests of 2019 and 2020. And they now seem to have consolidated their power at the provincial level as well. With a few notable exceptions.
Many Iraqis no longer believe that the democracy the Americans installed after the fall of Saddam in 2003 can bring them anything good. This is probably also where Al-Sadr’s decision to call for a boycott comes from. Because that is a notorious blunt instrument, which has nothing to do with democracy, as that is about participation and discussion.
Just like when he withdrew from the formation of the government, he is again putting himself outside the system. To indicate how repulsive he finds it. But as a result, he has no say or power whatsoever. The only power tool available to him is that of mass protest; to send his millions of followers into the streets to show their dissatisfaction.
The exception to the general trend is first and foremost Mosul, once the capital of ISIS, where turnout at 52 percent was clearly higher than in the rest of the country. Here, many came to vote to support their ousted governor.
Najem al-Jibouri, Mosul’s military commander during and after the war against ISIS, was recently forced to step down as governor because he was once a member of Saddam’s Baath Party. The Americans had brought him back from his new home in the US to strengthen the new Iraqi army.
But the Shiite government in Baghdad believed that the then-granted exemption from the de-Baathification law had long expired. That rules that anyone who was ever a Baath member is not allowed to hold an important administrative position.
Jibouri’s commitment to the welfare of his city clashed with the goal of Shiite militias to gain economic control there. His popularity, however, gave his newly founded party five seats, the same amount as the People of Nineveh coalition (including the Kurdish PUK).
The largest Kurdish party KDP won four seats, while six other lists each won two seats. Conclusion: with the help of the Kurds, Jibouri can get his governor job back.
Kurds also played a leading role in the elections in the oil city of Kirkuk. There, the turnout of 64 percent was the highest in Iraq. Many residents clearly saw the elections as a way to undo unpopular decisions made by Baghdad. This had punished the Kurds after the failed independence referendum of October 2017, by taking their power away from them in Kirkuk.
The successful Kurdish governor was replaced by an Arab. He reversed a number of decisions regarding Kurds who had been dispossessed in Saddam’s time and during the Kurdish rule had gotten their land back. For the Kurds, Baghdad’s takeover of Kirkuk was unbearable. They see the city as their Jerusalem.
So they came to the polls en masse. Despite the fact that thousands of Kurds did not receive the biometric card required to vote, they managed to get 64 percent of the vote. The Arabs got 32 percent, and the Turkmen twelve percent. If they indeed have a majority of the fifteen seats in the council, the Kurds may provide the governor – and are back in power.
The big problem with the numbers is that the Kurdish votes are divided between the two rival Kurdish parties KDP and PUK. To achieve anything, they will have to cooperate in Kirkuk – and the way that’s been going in Kurdistan in recent years does not bode well. Another, more realistic option seems to be that the PUK, which won the most Kurdish votes by far, will form an alliance with Shiite government parties.
So there will be exciting coalition negotiations in Kirkuk and Mosul – in a country where after decades of one party rule forming coalitions still is a difficult process. In Anbar, the Sunni province that after the liberation of ISIS has undergone rapid reconstruction, it will be easier. There, parties with ties to the ousted parliamentary speaker Halbousi won.
And surprisingly, his Taqadoum list also became the largest in the Iraqi capital, just ahead of the largest Shiite coalition. Here too, you could say that citizens used the ballot box to reprimand the Shiite rulers by standing so massively behind a politician they had ousted.
More so, Al-Sadr’s boycott plays a role here. He has a large following in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, especially in the million-strong Sadr City. This partly explains the extremely low turnout in the capital (19 percent), which benefits Halbousi. But do not ignore the effect of the dissatisfaction among citizens about the corruption and abuse of power by the current Shiite rulers.
Whether Halbousi will be able to cash in on his victory is questionable. The chance that the party will still be disqualified looms over the market. But it’s even more likely that competing Shiite parties in the council will work together, just to keep him out of power.
It should be noted that all Iraqi politicians are more or less corrupt, and probably have bought votes. And that many Iraqis have voted with their feet and shown their dissatisfaction with their government by staying home. But that in that way they can be sure nothing will be done about their complains.
Iraqi Sunnis have learned this to their detriment when they boycotted the first elections after Saddam’s fall (and thus the end of Sunni power in Iraq). As a result, they had no influence on many decisions of the first governments, which are still in effect to this day. That explains why turnout in the Sunni provinces was higher than in the Shiite ones.
For Al-Sadr, this seems a problematic lesson. When he withdrew because the government formation did not go as he wanted, he lost power. And by boycotting the elections now, none of his followers will be able to influence the policies of their provincial councils for the coming years. He has put himself out.
Other groups did learn it. Young politicians who emerged as a result of the Tishreen movement (the youth protests of 2019 and 2020) have already entered parliament, and this time also got elected into the provincial councils. They know: in Iraq, power is corrupt. But standing outside yields nothing.
Change must come from within. And so the next challenge is: bring citizens back to the polls. And dispose of the weapon of the boycott for good.