The political scene: upcoming Iraqi elections and the remarkable liberal rise at the expense of traditional leaders

Farhad Alaaldin
29 june 2020

The October 2019 protests in Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq have created a shift in the political process that has been maintained since 2003. It is fair to say that everyone agrees that Iraq’s pre-October protests are not the same as Iraq’s post-October protests. This is reference to the violence and crackdowns that have been reported, as well as the assassinations and kidnappings of dozens of Iraqi civil rights activists, which were followed by the halting of people’s daily life and the political process, which pushed the government of Adel AbdulMehdi to resign and paved the way for a new government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Political observers agree that the events that ledto the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi and the selection of Kadhimi greatly contributed to the change in the Iraqi political map, through the disintegration of old alliances and the formation of new ones. Moreover, the focus come to the upcoming elections, which are supposed to be “snap elections”. However, the political and logistical indicators suggest that the upcoming elections in Iraq will take place between October 2021 to April 2022, most likely in 2022. The political scene will witness the emergence of new movements and forces within the framework of alliances, most of which represent the civil and liberal movements in general. The political landscape could include a combination of old and new, but there will be fierce competition among them.

The Liberal and moderate Movement
A movement started inside the Iraqi parliament to form a new alliance, this movement is led by Hikma, they started canvassing political blocs and individuals inside and outside parliament. This idea is appealing to Nasr Bloc and attracted some independent MPs of Shia and Sunni blocs, and some Kurds might join them, their main goal is to create an alliance within parliament in support of the Kadhimi Government.
The idea of a new alliance prior to elections could be attractive to widen the scope and form a much larger alliance in prepration for the election, and such alliance could be joined by the Prime Minister alKadhemi, the President Barham Salih and some prominent Sunni leaders to become a cross sectarian movement, they can be joined by the political movements that will emerge in the womb of the protest movement. This new movement could be known as a liberal to moderate alliance, given that the general orientation of these groups is more liberal or moderate than the extreme Islam parties, despite the fact that Hikma Movement is an Islamist movement, however they are well knwon for their moderate approach in the current political circles.
This alliance may be attractive to the public, especially to those who reject the political more open in governance, as well as in foreign and regional relations.
It is expected that their agenda and program in the upcoming elections will be based on openness, fighting corruption, rejecting sectarianism and nationalism, rejecting the current political and administrative reality, and moving towards strengthening the liberal or moderate wing relying on anti-corruption initiatives, and addressing the financial, health, economic and service crises, as well as the extension of the rule of law and the imposition of state authority and sovereignty.

The Conservative Movement
Another movement that could face the moderate movement mentioned above would be what we can call the Conservative Movement, represented by the State of Law and the political blocs that are part of the al-FatihCoalition, namely the Badr Organization, Asa’ibAhl al-Haqq, Sanad bloc, and others. These forces now occupy approximately 90 seats in Iraqi parliament.
However, this movement is facing major internal issues after the resignation of former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. It has since witnessed internal cracks and divisions due to process of new prime minister selection, which resulted in the refusal of two PM-designates, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan Al-Zurfi, before acceptance of the third candidate Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who became Prime Minister, despite the opposition of the majority of the political blocs within this conservative movement. The State of Law coalition announced its refusal to support Mustafa al-Kadhimi in an official statement, while the al-Fatih coalition has accepted to vote for the new cabinet, despite severe internal disagreements.They are presently more opposed to the new cabinet, than supportive of it.
The chances of these political coalitions and blocs winning the upcoming elections will reduce in general. There are parties and blocs that may preserve what they already have, but the expectations indicate that these blocs’ chances have diminished. For example, the State of Law bloc held power and authority, being established under the leadership of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he was in power. The bloc won 92 seats in the 2014 elections, but only 25 in 2018. There are no signs of any prospects for it obtaining the same number of seats in the upcoming elections, due to its loss of participation in the existing governmental cabinet, and its inability to organize itself as an opposition force.
The Badr Organization, led by Hadi Al-Ameri, is also suffering from deep internal disputes, represented by the emergence of new leaders seeking to lead the scene. These differences reached their climax during the process of assigning and selecting designates for the premiership but failed to secure the seat. At the same time, the organization has strong competitors among the Shiite public, such as AsaibAhl al-Haq (AAH) and the Sadrists, who outperform the Badr organization regarding the self-organization, discipline, and popularity, despite the fact that the organization’s leader [Hadi al-Ameri] possesses respectable political and jihadist history among the Shiite community. Nonetheless, he faces great internal pressures for his leadership role, and this may be reflected negatively in the next elections.
AAH, led by Qais al-Khazali, will continue to be the enigma of the electoral process. This organization operates within the population and has extensive communication with the voters and citizens. Also, Khazali’s revolutionary resistance speeches attract many young people and voters. They earned extensive experience when they were part of the Sadr movement, they have worked hard to refine their electoral skills in the 2018 elections. AAH participated in the 2014 elections and won one seat, while in the 2018 elections they won 15 seats. Naturally, they will be aiming to increase their seats in the upcoming elections, but this increase will surely be at the expense of its allies within the conservative movement, because AAH’s message is similar to those of others inside the conservative movement. It will not significantly affect the Sadrist movement or liberal voters.

The Sadr Movement
Observers of the Sadrist movement may note its increasing influence in successive elections. The movement has played the largest role in forming previous governmental cabinets since 2010. It is the only movement that enjoys expanding influence in an ascending manner, as it obtained 650,000 votes in the 2010 elections, 1.1 million votes in the 2014 elections, and 1.5 million votes in the 2018 elections to secure 54 seats in the Iraqi parliament, thus forming the largest parliamentary bloc. Many expect that the movement will increase its parliamentary seats in the upcoming elections, because it has integrated and accumulated experiences in the past electoral process and they have the best election team and experts.
The Sadr movement and its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, will play an important role in the balance of power and tipping the scale towards the bloc that will govern in the future. For that reason, it is not strange that we see all political partiesare working to gain the favour of Sadrists. However, the Sadrists are working on the future governance that they dominate and contrary to what they have done in the past, they might nominate someone within their own ranks for the premiership, it is not unusual to see now some of their members working on themselves to become the next Prime Minister.

The Kurds and Sunnis
The electoral equation in Iraq has contributed to the freezing of the Kurdish and Sunni influence to a large extent. Sunni seats inside Iraqi parliament ranges between (70 – 75) seats while the Kurdish seats do not exceed (55 – 60), depending on the electoral performance of Sunnis in Baghdad and Nineveh and the Kurds in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala.
The electoral equation in the Kurdistan Region will not witness many fundamental changes, because the Kurdish voter has succumbed to the political reality and for the failure of various opposition parties to attract voters, especially in Erbil and Duhok.The dominance of the two main parties will remain the same, with varying performances from the remaining parties.
Contrary to the hegemony of the political parties in the Kurdistan Region, the Sunni political process is based on individuals or politicians and we see that the Sunni blocs largely depend on personalities who attract voters. There are rivalries between current Sunni politicians on the political ground, and new rising individuals; however, leadership will remain in the hands of those currently involved in the political scene, due to the difficulty of attracting voters without the use of significant financial and governmental influence in their election campaigns. No one will succeed if they do not hold a position in government, parliament, or at the very least a local administration position.
The electoral competition within the Sunnis may be divided between the current Speaker of parliament, Muhammad al-Halbousi, and the businessman and head of the Arab project, Khamis al-Khanjar, who will both be rivalled by Sunni politicians who fall under the umbrella of the liberal movement. At the same time, it is possible to see one of them join the liberal movement. The main competition ground is going to be in Mosul and Salahadin provinces. It would be difficult for others to compete against Halbousi in Anbar, due to his wide influence in the province and his continuous work in attracting voters there over the past years as governor and speaker of parliament.

The Fateful Election
Every Iraqi election has always been described as fateful, that it will decide on the future of Iraq. This description will not change for the upcoming elections. Perhaps the fundamental variations are the October 2019 demonstrations, which have changed the pattern of political performance that came about after 2003 due to the wave of demonstrations that invaded central and southern Iraq, along with the severe challenges facing Iraq from a stifling financial crisis, rampant corruption, collapsed infrastructure, a lack of services, and a lack of sovereignty due to the multiple violations of its land and sky of Iraq by neighbouring countries and others.
Another likely variation will be the opposite of the voter apathy occurred in the 2018 elections, i.e. the widespread demand for participation in the election in the hope of change and reform, as well as the encouragement from all the political movements mentioned above who will see the participation of their voters as crucial for their success.
The main difference of this election is the replacement of electoral lists by electoral individuals, and the end of the role of traditional leaders who receive hundreds of thousands of votes to ensure that those who run in their shadow win seats while they get hundreds of votes. The candidate is running in one constituency and each constituency is independent from the other, and the winner ascends by himself/herself. For this reason, we will see the emergence of local personalities in the Iraqi parliament representing their constituents from the tribe, the region and the city they come from, and they will be held accountable by the voters in the coming years.
Farhad Alaaldin is the Chairman of Iraqi Advisory Council, he was the political adviser to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum, the former chief of staff to the KRG prime minister from 2009 to 2011, and former senior adviser to the KRG prime minister from 2011 to 2012.

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