While the Shiite actors are working to hinder, through parliamentary procedures, the holding of the early legislative elections at the date set by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in June 2021, they are taking parallel steps to prepare for the next elections, should they be held.

Shiite actors and the upcoming elections

The upcoming election season in Iraq will not be similar to the rest of the past election seasons in terms of clarity of ideological political identities and the disclosure of the sectarian or ethnic-oriented goals adopted by the previous election campaigns, especially by the radical Shiite actors known for their sectarian rhetoric of a political nature.

The protest movement in Iraq seems to have turned the balance of the political and electoral process in particular. Most of the Shiite actors began to use evasive language in their speeches to the public who are angry about the general situation in the country. The evasiveness went as far as blurring the political identity of the parties through the formation of alternative or auxiliary entities to their parent entities in order to get out of the next electoral battle with the least losses and to preserve what remained of the decrepit power gains in Iraq.

The failure of the actors of Shiite political Islam to lead Iraq towards security and stability, provide services to its citizens, and rid the country of dependence on Iranian decisions and interests, has forced them to proceed towards raising civil or regional signs in the hope that this would bring them closer to the sentiments of the inflamed local street that demonstrates against the practices of the Shiite-dominated authority for 17 years.

The actors of political Shiism, with both its pro- (loyalist) and anti-Iran wings, have been for months preparing their future political conditions in line with the new reality. So, they began to feel the danger in light of the growing base of popular protest, both in the demonstration squares or on social media websites. Today, they gather their ranks and think about how to participate in the upcoming elections and under what electoral denomination or identity. In this regard, the following can be observed:

1. The Badr Organisation, led by Hadi al-Amiri and characterised by a strict ideological structure, seeks to enter the elections under a civilian banner. Al-Amiri seeks to get close to small civilian actors (losers in every election, such as the National Democratic Party and the Arab Socialist Movement) to come up with an electoral list with "national" features that would remove from people’s minds the Organisation’s well-known militia-affiliated, loyalist, ideological character, especially since al-Amiri has begun to use a different political rhetoric from the rest of the loyalist faction leaders. He has recently been calling for the need to project the state’s prestige and support the decisions of the transitional government (the government accused of Americanism by Amiri’s allies), as was stated in his recent statement on 31 August 2020. Furthermore, the media platforms of the Badr Organisation now deal with current events in a different way in terms of moving away from the language of accusation of betrayal and from sectarianism (for example, the Badr Organisation platforms and media outlets did not participate in the attack on the Dijlah (Tigris) Tarab Channel after the latter broadcast songs on the day of Ashura [to mark the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in Karabala], which the loyalist factions considered as an ideological targeting of the Shiites by the channel’s owner, the Sunni leader Jamal al-Karbouli).

2. The loyalist factions, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous), the Kataib al-Imam Ali (the Imam Ali Battalions), Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (the Sayyid of Martyrs Battalions), the National Sanad (Support) Bloc, Harakat al-Jihad wal-Bina (the Jihad and Building Movement), and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), seek to establish a new electoral formation under the name of "Jihadi Watani" with regional goals, to appeal to Iraqi voters in the southern provinces and Central Euphrates. Those factions utilise the regional fanaticism and seek to mobilise against rival regional and national actors, especially against the Kurdistan Region actors. These factions link the injustice of the southerners and their deprivation of services and a decent life with blaming the Kurdish actors that "subsist on the oil and goods of the Iraqi south", according to the rhetoric currently prevailing among the inhabitants of the southern oil-producing provinces. This is increasingly evident today in the rhetoric of the loyalist Members of Parliament (MPs) and the loyalist media in general.

3. The State (Rule) of Law Coalition, led by Nouri al-Maliki, has, since the last elections, tended to support a youth line represented by Maliki’s son-in-law, the Karbala MP Yasser al-Maliki, who heads a youth movement under the name of Bashaer (Good News). This young MP seeks to rehabilitate himself again for the upcoming elections by adopting a media rhetoric that ostensibly opposes the "non-state" rhetoric, criticises the proliferation of weapons and supports the civilian state. He aims from this to draw the attention of young people in the strongholds of the public who had previously heavily voted for the State of Law Coalition, especially in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Babil and Diwaniyah.

4. The National Wisdom (Hikmah) Movement, led by Ammar al-Hakim, has recently formed a parliamentary bloc called Iraqioun (Iraqis) that includes MPs from the Eraada (also Irada, Will) bloc led by Hanan al-Fatlawi, and the Nahj (Course) bloc (formerly the Fadilah (Virtue) Party bloc) to support the transitional government in Parliament. The Hikmah is the most volatile movement in each electoral season in terms of political renewal. It seems that it has attempted to produce a shadow movement for its official one. Sources claim that Waie (Awareness) youth movement formed recently by Salah al-Arbawi (a former leader in the Hikmah Movement who announced on 24 April 2020 his withdrawal from Hikmah because, as he stated, he was not convinced of partisan work), is connected to Hikmah Movement. Waie, however, categorically denies any connection to Hikmah and its leader and reiterates its full independence.   

5. As for the Nasr (Victory) Coalition led by Haider al-Abadi, it has not yet created a shadow trend of its own because the strategy of this alliance is based on addressing the Shiite civilian public in the capital Baghdad and the cities of Central Euphrates in particular. The Coalition seeks to rely on its main figures, such as its leader Haider al-Abadi and the prominent Najafi leader Adnan al-Zurfi.

Liquidation and intimidation operations

The loyalist actors fear the repercussions of the popular protests, which have started since the first of October 2019, against their existence and deep power (with the support of the Shiite religious authority, the protests forced the government of the Fatah Alliance headed by Abdul Mahdi to resign). Among the likely consequences is the promotion of popular figures who are acceptable to the protesting public to compete in the upcoming elections against the radical actors that hold power. Several active personalities have emerged in the demonstrations of the southern governorates and the Central Euphrates, and have come to boast an important media and public weight.

With the advent of the first anniversary of the protests, and the fear of utilising their momentum once again in the early elections, the hard-line Shiite parties are in a state of alert, especially after the many popular demands that a political gathering be generated from the protests to compete with traditional politicians for power in the upcoming election arena.

The armed groups with political cover did not like the emergence of civilian figures in the southern governorates, which are supposed to be guaranteed arena for those groups. Therefore, they deliberately disturbed the security situation in the governorates of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar by carrying out a series of assassinations that targeted southern figures who are active in the protest movement and were hoped to participate in the elections. Those operations also led to the intimidation of most activists in those provinces (some of them left for Turkey or the Kurdistan Region as a result of receiving a threat or fear of being liquidated later). Weakening the protest movement and intimidating the sympathetic public became a strategic goal of the armed groups, so that they would kill two birds with one stone: clean up the arena from potential competitors, and put the Iraqi government in a spiral of security embarrassment in front of the indignant public at the situation as a whole.

August 2020 was considered the month of security setback in the cities of southern Iraq, due to the insecurity and the control of armed groups that are almost unanimously thought to stand behind the assassination of civil society figures in those cities. According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, the number of assassinations for that month was nine in the governorates of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar.

The southern Iraqi cities are the electoral arena for the loyalist Shiite factions in particular. The recent assassinations against the influential activists are in the interest of those factions by causing a state of panic and intimidation among all competitors in the upcoming elections (in the opinion of those factions). The security turmoil also leads to a state of popular breakdown and an increase in the rate of electoral boycott by the masses opposed to the ruling actors, which makes the electoral balance tilt in favour of the loyalists, after having ensured the broad participation of their public as opposed to the boycott of their opponents’ public.

Election date and blocking of the procedure

The calls by some Iraqi political blocs for the need to hold legislative elections "earlier" than the date set by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on 6 June 2021 were nothing but a hypocritical attempt to win the sympathy of the agitated street from the repercussions of the failure of the country’s political system. Betting on holding early or earlier elections requires the adoption of important laws, most notably the Election Law and the Law of the Federal Court (the body that certifies the election results), while the Iraqi political consensus on important laws usually requires long dialogues that could last months, especially since the election law faces great complications related to the form of dividing the individual electoral districts that have become the focus of heated debate between the various political blocs.

The political actors continue to procrastinate in the implementation of those laws, which reveals the unwillingness of the Shiite blocs that hold power to hold actual elections at the present time. This is due to the following:

1. Fear of the escalating protest climate against them until now, which would negatively affect their electoral results.

2. Their need for sufficient time to organise their internal ranks, in parallel with depriving the protest movement of its symbols and destroying its image in the eyes of its audience.

3. Seeking to bring down opponents and competitors, and betting on the failure of the existing government which seeks to expose the corruption of the parties in control of previous governments.

4. The shadow trends also need time to prove themselves and convince the public of their rhetoric and goals in order to reach the desired electoral results.

Accordingly, disrupting the early elections would be a plausible option for Shiite actors, especially the loyalist ones. They would often seek to exploit the security loopholes and further increase the security turmoil, specifically in their areas of influence in southern and central Iraq, as well as obstruct the adoption of the necessary laws regarding elections within the Council of Representatives (Parliament), to prevent the early elections from taking place.

Expectations

So far, it does not seem that the pro- or anti-Iran Shiite actors would lose their positions on the political scene even if they suffer from a decline in the number of their MPs in the early elections, for several reasons, the most important of which are the following:

1. Failure of the protest movement so far to produce leaders with charisma and an inspiring vision for the masses who went out to demonstrate for months in a way that would motivate and mobilise them to vote for a new electoral list.

2. The state of rupture that began to hit the wings of the protest movement for personal and regional reasons, in addition to the natural rivalries to be at the forefront of the movement.

3. The security pressure that civilian activists are subjected to through assassinations and intimidations, as well as smear campaigns and incitement in the Iranian media in Iraq and the social media outlets that have become under the control of the loyalist electronic armies by flooding them with sectarian labels.

4. The uncertainty surrounding the date of holding the elections has become a clear embarrassment for the calculations of the camp opposed to the ruling powers, and encourages them to slow down in mobilising their energies for communication between the main sit-in and demonstration squares, in order to come up with the nucleus of an alternative project that is capable of attracting the electoral bloc that boycotted the last parliamentary elections, which accounts for at least 60 percent of all citizens who are entitled to vote.

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