(This essay offers the author’s further reflections on his interview for the podcast series “Reckoning with 9/11,” produced by Saferworld and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.)
Iraqis are due to head to the polls on Oct. 10 in their country’s sixth parliamentary election since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in 2003. For many Western and Iraqi policymakers, such elections are essential to Iraq’s fledgling but critical transition to democracy.
Yet, the headline for this election likely will be less about winners and losers and more about low voter turnout. In Iraq’s first free election in 2005, turnout was almost 80 percent. Since then, the figure has declined. In the most recent elections in 2018, the official turnout was 44 percent of registered voters, though most observers and even some officials acknowledge it was probably much lower, possibly less than 30 percent. Iraqis do not feel that elections represent a channel for their voices or an instrument for change.
To express their despair, protesters in October 2019 began sitting in city squares in Baghdad and in the south. They called for more than the removal of a party or leader; they wanted a change to the entire political system. Instead, they were met with lethal force, as the government killed 600 protesters and injured tens of thousands more.
At the time, some protesters demanded early elections. And this upcoming election is being held six months early to meet that demand. Yet, protest movements and many Iraqis intend to boycott it. To them, nothing has fundamentally changed in the political system. The same cast of leaders and parties are again competing to divide the wealth of a rich Iraqi state for themselves and their cronies. Early elections do not address the roots of the problem, which is that the political system does not represent a growing part of the population. Iraq’s leaders struggle to maintain public authority. They do not share the country’s wealth with most of the population and are less able to gain popular support with ideological arguments than before.
Elections Amid Systematic Violence Against Civil Society
More critically, since the last election in 2018, instead of systemic reform and improvement to address the decline in public trust evident in that year’s low turnout, the political system has become more violent. Beyond the killings in protest squares, the system has developed mechanisms to thwart activists and civil society mobilizers before they mount demonstrations, with targeted assassinations, detention, torture, and intimidation of civil society and activists. The armed groups and militias kill in broad daylight, caught on CCTV cameras, enjoying impunity for their work in protecting the political system.
Western diplomacy and aid during this time have sought to support efforts to rebuild trust between the elite and citizens. However, these Western initiatives have not engaged with the root of the problem, namely unaccountable governance.
Iraq’s entrenched political system has proven resilient to the challenge posed by protesters. In addition to the violence that defends the system, the elite have been unwilling to fundamentally reform. Despite the officials in this government who sympathize with the grievances of protesters, the ruling parties continue to compete and cooperate for the proceeds of state coffers, with little going back to society. Corruption is politically sanctioned. It is part of the system. After this election, like the past ones, they will come together to divide not only ministerial positions but also senior civil servant positions in ministries. These positions will serve as channels to procure contracts and wealth from the Iraqi state.
Instead of addressing these fundamental issues, the international community has focused on the technicalities of the electoral system and the kind of fraud that has marred past elections. Such programs are based on the presumption that if the elections appear to be organized in a way that will be technically free and fair, more Iraqis will vote. Certainly, this could lead to incremental reform of the system. But for many Iraqis, elections merely reinforce the unaccountable status quo represented by the ruling political parties.
Internationals have also invested in training for protesters to become politicians. Some Iraqi elite also have attempted to reach out to protesters. The theory of bringing protest leaders into politics is that alternative candidates who represent the aggrieved populations can increase turnout, pursue genuine reform, and pick away at the ruling parties’ control of the system. But the effect is to bring protesters into the existing system, rather than reforming the system. As a result, trust between the elite and the rest of society has not been repaired. Rather, it continues to decline.
Rushed Political Engagement with Protests Movements
Part of the failure to bridge the gap between existing political leaders and protesters has been a flawed assumption that all protesters and disillusioned Iraqis are organizationally united. But the protests have not represented a single movement. Instead, they represent many micro-movements of aggrieved citizens who do not work together in a coherent way. Cherry-picking a handful of protesters or activists from these many movements to establish a dialogue with the elite has not worked. It has been rushed.
Instead, before any engagement with the existing elite and system, more focus needs to be placed on bringing together protest leaders and other aggrieved groups in society to establish common frameworks aimed at tackling the structural problems in Iraqi state-society relations. Similarly, the few independent reformists who remain in the system are unable to bring about change alone. Efforts can be aimed at strengthening the connective tissues among these reformists, who often feel like institutional islands surrounded by the corruption that underlines Iraqi governance.
Elections notwithstanding, Iraqis did not have a say in the social contract established in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion. They were given a political system that enriched an elite but did not provide basic services. The protests that have erupted have provided an opportunity for the country’s burgeoning youth population to have a say, because elections never improved their lives. Yet, both Iraqi officials and international actors continue to focus not on systematic reform, but rather on elections as the channel to democratize Iraq. But more deeply rooted problems need to be addressed before any single vote can bring about change.