In October, Iraq held its fifth parliamentary election since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The polls took place in a moment of deep gloom and anger with the political process. Many Iraqis across the country refused to vote out of the conviction that elections have not deepened democracy but instead have reinforced the unaccountable and corrupt political system that has prevailed since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
As expected, turnout for the vote was the lowest in Iraq’s recent history, officially recorded at 36 percent. Many analysts believe that the true figure is in fact much lower. The international community, including the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, invested millions of dollars in trying to instill trust in elections, which first took place in 2005. So, too, have religious institutions and leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani sought to get Iraqis to vote. Despite these efforts, many Iraqis remain thoroughly disillusioned and disinterested in the electoral options offered to them.
Nevertheless, these elections did appear to provide some grounds for optimism. A few parties and political figures associated with huge public protests in 2019 won seats in the new parliament. They share a distrust of and impatience with the Iraqi political system and seek to curb the entrenched corruption that has created a narrow ruling elite. This system has proved resilient to all challenges, but the burgeoning coalition of reform-minded political groups holds out the prospect of at least incremental change in Iraq.
THE HEAVY HAND OF THE STATE
This year’s election followed a period of upheaval in Iraq. In the wake of the 2018 election, many Iraqis took to the streets, convinced that the vote was rigged. Demonstrations flared that year in Basra, which suffered power and water cuts in the scorching summer months, with protesters calling for better services and condemning the corrupt political class. In response, the state violently clamped down on protesters in Basra in a sign of things to come.
The Iraqi government has lost the confidence of much of the country. Almost two-thirds of Iraqis are under the age of 25. In recent years, faced with economic crises linked primarily to fluctuations in the price of oil (which accounts for over 90 percent of state revenue), the government has struggled to create jobs and provide basic services to this growing population. Instead, the establishment parties have used their access to government positions to take from state coffers and develop and sustain their own patronage networks, catering only to a shrinking sliver of society.
The Iraqi government has lost the confidence of much of the country.
Disillusionment over this politically sanctioned corruption bubbled over in 2019 when young Iraqis took to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and other squares in the south to again protest failures of governance. Known as the October Uprising, these demonstrations spread to cities across the country and posed a major challenge not just to the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi but also to the political system that came into being in the wake of the 2003 invasion—the simultaneous collaboration and competition of ethnosectarian political parties (including Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish groups and parties representing smaller minorities) in forming governments and administering the state’s coffers. Protesters arrayed themselves not against a particular leader or party but rather against the entire ruling elite and the political status quo that elections only reinforce.
The state responded to protests in Basra in 2018 and the 2019 October Uprising with unprecedented violence. The government, which viewed the uprising as an existential threat, relied on armed groups that killed hundreds of demonstrators and injured tens of thousands more. Eventually, authorities were able to reclaim the public squares and send protesters home. Since then, the state has sought to deter mass mobilizations in part by allowing armed groups to carry out a campaign of assassinations that have targeted dozens of political activists and civil society leaders. These armed groups enjoy total impunity for helping to protect the system from the upwelling of popular anger. Authorities have jailed, tortured, and intimidated many more activists.
The repression of the protest movements achieved its desired result. If many Iraqis in 2018 doubted that their votes could bring about change, many Iraqis in 2021 grew to fear that protests are incapable of bringing about change and only invite violent retribution.
FROM THE STREETS TO PARLIAMENT
The low turnout of the 2021 election reflected the sense of resignation that pervades Iraqi society. Parties with social bases and networks of patronage won a disproportionate number of seats, taking advantage of voter apathy. The bloc led by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr did best, increasing its parliamentary seat total from 54 to 73, while its main competitor, Fateh, struggled primarily because of its failure to navigate changes in the electoral system. In the years since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Sadr has often portrayed himself as a political outsider and an antagonist of the state even as he remains one of Iraq’s chief power brokers.
But the election didn’t just offer more of the same. New parties and political leaders who had emerged from the protests of recent years did surprisingly well. Emtidad, a party that grew out of the occupation of squares in the city of Nasiriya and is led by the protest organizer Alaa al-Rikabi, won nine seats. Rikabi himself received the third-highest number of votes of any individual candidate. Other protest-inspired groups fared well, including Ishraq Qanoon, which won six seats, and the New Generation Movement, which won nine seats. The latter is a party born out of protests in the autonomous Kurdistan region, where many people suffer from the same disillusionment as people in central and southern Iraq. Several activists involved in the protests across the country also ran as independents and won seats.
Together, these groups and figures could form an important slice of the new parliament. They have claimed that they will not take part in the usual horse-trading that comes after an election as parties wrangle over access to state coffers but will instead use their seats to form an opposition to the ruling consensus. At stake here is the emergence of something that has never really existed in Iraq’s recent history: an opposition within the parliament. Instead of the usual national consensus governments that bring together all sides, these MPs seek to forge a significant bloc that can represent those Iraqis who do not benefit from existing patronage networks. If they can survive as an integral bloc over the next four years, they hope to win even more votes and build an even bigger opposition bloc in the next election, holding out the prospect of greater accountability and incremental reform coming from within the system—a possibility that many Iraqis have given up on.
A FOOT IN THE DOOR
Nevertheless, this coalition of parties affiliated with the protests faces an uphill battle. Similar challenges to the status quo in Iraq have foundered in the past. The Gorran movement that emerged from protests in the city of Sulaymaniyah in the autonomous Kurdistan region in 2009 ultimately failed to change the political system. It, too, sought to form an opposition to bring down the duopoly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Kurdistan. But over the years, the two dominant parties managed to divide and weaken the Gorran movement. The death of its leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, also sparked further infighting and exposed deep internal tensions.
A year later, the Iraqiya coalition, which consisted of a mix of secular Sunni and Shiite parties, won the 2010 election but never managed to come to power: then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to entice defectors to leave the group, again revealing the great vulnerability of broad coalitions in Iraqi politics. He also managed to end the feuding between the main Shiite parties; the establishment came together in the face of the threat of Iraqiya.
Today’s most recent iteration of resistance to the prevailing political system will face similar challenges. Its coalition is not hugely unified. It will come up against the entrenched interests of the elite consensus; Sadr, Maliki, and other standard-bearers of the establishment will again set aside feuding to break up and contain the challengers.
The political elites will work to stymie the protest parties.
The powerful ruling parties fear being dislodged from their perch and losing control of the state coffers. As they form a new government in the wake of the election, they will negotiate not just for ministerial jobs but also for senior civil service positions, posts that have allowed these parties to generate revenue and maintain their patronage networks. The divisions between the dominant parties—namely, between those attached to Sadr and those aligned with Maliki and Fateh—may at times be pronounced and have led to violence (including the recent assault on the residence of the prime minister), but they are not insoluble; the political elites will ultimately agree to stymie the protest parties, which represent a new existential threat to the current order.
The ruling elites are experienced in dividing, threatening, and silencing such threats. For their part, the MPs affiliated with the protests are not part of a coherent bloc and are, in many cases, new to politics. They must square a circle; they will have limited ability to effect change in a parliament tilted against them, but their inability to effect change will be held against them in the next election cycle. At times they will also risk being divided, given that they represent not a single entity but many small movements. They may lose the confidence that many desperate Iraqis bestowed on them. In the best-case scenario, these MPs will endure in parliament as a coherent group while maintaining relations with civil society and protest movements and building ties with reformists within the Iraqi government, in the process strengthening the connective tissue of reform.
Nevertheless, the odds are stacked against them. As the MPs attempt to survive in a hostile parliament, the state will continue to target civil society activists and limit basic freedoms of political mobilization and expression. The government will also continue to fail in providing basic services and employment to a growing population. But its failures will not catalyze support for the protest-affiliated MPs. Some Iraqis look at the protest parties with hope for incremental reform, but the resilient and unaccountable political system will strive to ensure the continuation of the status quo. If they see no improvement in their lives in four years, disillusioned Iraqis will not likely return to the parties they hoped would usher in better times.
Iraq’s Protesters Become Parliamentarians | Foreign Affairs is written by Renad Mansour for www.foreignaffairs.com