Iraq Political Developments: Implications for Early Elections

EPC | 14 Jul 2021

As the October 10th, 2021 date for Iraq's early parliamentary election winds down, several issues and developments continue to cast a shadow over the country's political trajectory and raise questions about the vote, its integrity, and possible outcomes. Among the most important of these issues is a chronic electricity crisis that worsens even more during the summer months, the fact that most civil and protest movement activists decided not to participate in the elections, and recent moves by the country's main political actors.

Power Outage Crisis

As the summer heat intensified, Iraq has once again plunged into extended power outages, sparking sporadic protests in several regions of the country, and later prompting the resignation of the Minister of Electricity. The main reason for the crisis, which has become an annual summer issue, is the failure of the country's electricity infrastructure to meet the demand that increases during the hot season, and a decrepit transmission network.  Iraq's need for electric power is estimated at 29,000 megawatts, but the current production capacity is 19,600 megawatts provided that all power stations operate at full capacity. Even with this deficit, the country's power generation capacity has fallen dramatically this summer due to what appears to be delays in plant maintenance and some plant shutdowns. In early July, the country’s power generation capacity stood at about 4,000 megawatts only, before it rose again, but in a way that did not translate into a significant improvement in supply.

Regardless of whether the generating capacity will improve or not, a rundown transmission network, which has not undergone a significant improvement, will remain a problem. Transformation and transmission towers in many areas, such as Samarra, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din, were subjected to numerous attacks, sometimes leading to blackouts in some areas. Although the parties involved in such sabotage attacks remain unknown until now, the fingers of responsibility for these attacks are usually pointed at Daesh. Another hypothesis in this regard claims that political parties and militias are involved in these operations in order to ignite tensions, either in the hope of thwarting the Al-Kazemi government or to prevent the holding of elections. These attacks may be carried out by local or tribal groups to cut off electrical supply to some areas and direct it to other areas.

To make matters worse, Iran has stopped supplying Iraq with 1,200 megawatts of electricity through their electric interconnection, because it, too, is facing a power supply crisis this summer. This is in addition to a significant decline in Iranian gas exports to Iraq due to Iraq's failure to pay its dues to Iran as a result of the US sanctions imposed on the latter. While Iraq possesses large reserves of natural gas that can offset the shortfall in the Iranian gas supply, the failure of previous governments to invest in natural gas deprived the country of this resource, and made it largely under Iranian pressure. Although Mustafa Al-Kazemi’s government, with American encouragement, has been pursuing gas capture projects, specifically in the Artawi fields in southern Iraq and Al-Mansuriya in Diyala, and other small fields in Basra, it is not likely that Iraq will achieve self-sufficiency in natural gas before three years at least assuming that these projects will be completed on schedule. 

The crisis may worsen in July and August, especially if mercury levels continue to rise. Such conditions could put massive pressures on the Al-Kazemi government, increase popular discontent, and drive the country into a cycle of instability ahead of the elections. Therefore, Al-Kazemi formed a crisis cell to solve the electricity problem, while at the same time blaming previous governments, which he said had failed to address this problem for 17 years. Al-Kazemi also accepted the resignation of the Minister of Electricity, Majid Hantoush, after a statement issued by Muqtada al-Sadr, in which he called on the minister to resign. The Sadrist movement has a wide influence in the Ministry of Electricity, which is seen in the party quota system as a "Sadrist" ministry. Hantoush was the second minister - affiliated with the Sadrist movement - to tender his resignation after the resignation of the Minister of Health following a fire that broke out in Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital. Recently, al-Sadr has suggested that his supporters may take to the streets to protest the recurring power cuts. However, it seems that this is nothing but a maneuver by al-Sadr to evade responsibility and restore his ability to mobilize the masses in order to put pressure on his rivals, who, in turn, are putting pressure on him by employing the failures of the service ministries linked to his movement to their advantage.

Civil and Protest Movement Actors

Many civil and protest movement actors announced their boycott of the elections due to what they said were the lack of conditions that guarantee that the polls will be free and fair and the lack of equal opportunities for candidates, especially with the continued assassinations and harassment of civilian activists. Although the protest movement actors have sought to gather in a “one front” to ensure greater influence, and spoke of a comprehensive national opposition conference, most attempts in this regard have not yet yielded a clear result, and there are still divergent opinions and disagreements about the next steps. Some of these actors, such as the “Emtidad" movement led by Alaa Al-Rikabi, still insist on running in the elections, while others link participation with certain conditions. These actors also differ in translating their boycott into a specific action. While some call for not running in the elections and voting only for candidates and lists close to the protest movement, others tend to call for a comprehensive boycott and urge voters not to vote, in order not to legitimize the electoral process.

The May 25 demonstrations, which followed the assassination of activist Ihab al-Wazni, tested the strength of the protest movement and its ability to regain momentum. However, the least that can be said is that the result was not encouraging. In addition to the limited number of people who participated in the demonstrations, many of whom came from the governorates, the events that followed, such as the security forces shooting some demonstrators and killing two of them, and the Al-Kazemi government’s arrest of a senior commander in the People's Mobilization Forces (PMF), Qassem Musleh, who was later released by a court, indicate that it is difficult to score a major breakthrough or change the current balances between the political class and the public. They also indicate that the groups speaking on behalf of the protest movement do not have a decisive influence on the dynamics of that movement and that the conditions are not ripe yet to restore its momentum, which has declined for several factors, including "exhaustion" and popular discontent arising from the closure of streets, schools and many institutions. This is in addition to the intimidation, assassination and kidnapping of activists and the buying out of key protest movement leaders.

Undoubtedly, if the demonstrations escalate as a result of the electricity crisis, the protest movement actors will find an opportunity to regain part of the lost momentum. But, at the same time, the demonstrations may turn into a tool that some political actors may exploit, especially pro-Wilayat al-Faqih factions, to hold the Al-Kazemi government responsible. For this reason, Al-Kazemi took steps to calm the atmosphere with his political opponents, hoping that the current summer season would not turn into an occasion that makes his government a scapegoat, especially as he seeks a second term as prime minister after the elections.

On the other hand, the boycott of the elections by some civil and protest forces is not likely to have a significant impact on holding the elections on time. Most of these actors are still marginal and have no effective tool for pressure other than demonstrations. In light of the fact that this tool is currently ineffective, it is not likely that the statements of the protest movement actors will have a significant impact on the date and conditions of the elections. However, this may change in the event of any new developments, such as the escalation of demonstrations resulting from the electricity crisis, or the occurrence of major electoral fraud that undermines elections credibility.

Pre-Election Moves by Political Actors

Meanwhile, political actors are intensifying their efforts ahead of the elections, although some have raised "concerns" about the impossibility of holding the vote on time. At the forefront of those who warned of postponing the elections, Nouri al-Maliki, leader of the "State of Law" coalition, and Qais Khazali, leader of "Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq". They argue that there is a "hidden will" seeking to disrupt the elections, either to deprive the regime of its constitutional legitimacy, according to Al-Maliki, or to establish an "emergency government headed by Al-Kazemi," according to Khazali. Nevertheless, these statements may be an attempt to hide the real intentions of these actors, or simply to suggest that they are keen to see the elections held on time.

Among the set of reasons that lead some political actors to fear the elections is that they are not sufficiently prepared for it and the inability to anticipate the possible results of the polls that will be conducted according to a new electoral system that these actors are unfamiliar with. Also, the current fragmentation of the political landscape and the failure to reach new consensus may encourage some of these actors to think of calling for the elections to be postponed until better conditions become available. But that will not happen unless it comes at the request of the government or the Electoral Commission, given that none of the main actors is ready to take responsibility for the delay. To this day, these actors openly reject any proposals to postpone the elections. Some of them also made good strides in preparing for the elections, such as registering their electoral coalitions, naming their candidates, and resolving their cases with the Federal Court.

However, despite the "non-binding" decision of the House of Representatives to dissolve itself three days before the election date, many of its members have an interest in continuing to hold their positions until the end of the parliamentary session in April 2022 and may be tempted to look for pretexts to do so. However, since the leaders of the political blocs agree on the current election date, and unless that changes, the wishes of the members of the Council are not likely to lead to the postponement of the elections. Undoubetdly, adherence to the date will be affected by factors including the political situation and the outbreak of large-scale protests that affect stability, as well as the Iranian-American tension and its repercussions on Iraq, especially with the election of a conservative president in Iran and the apparent failure in the Vienna negotiations.

Recent weeks, especially the first week of July, have seen an escalation by armed factions following a U.S. airstrike on sites belonging to pro-Iranian factions on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. While analyzes indicate that this escalation is mainly related to Iran's attempt to pressure the U.S. side in the Vienna negotiations, another theory sees that many of these attacks come at the initiative of the armed factions in Iraq that are trying to establish their own deterrence separate from the Iranian side. At the same time, the election of Ibrahim Raisi as Iran's president encouraged these factions to go further in flexing their muscles, assuming that the new Iranian leadership would stand behind them anyway.

In an attempt to deescalate and relieve pressure on his government, and after his decision not to participate in the elections, Al-Kazemi turned to calm, especially after the events that accompanied the arrest of PMF leader Qassem Musleh. Therefore, he has recently formed a "coordinating framework" consisting of representatives of the Shiite parties to consult with them on ways to calm down and prepare for the elections.

According to a reading of the current balance of power, the elections are not expected to produce a major change in the power equation unless there is a very wide popular participation, and the votes go decisively to one actor rather than another. Therefore, it is in the interest of the main actors not to encourage broad participation, but, at the same time, to mobilize their supporters to participate, which may push them to sow despair in the hearts of activists and members of the new movements and continue to harass them to push them to boycott the vote. Also, whether or not the Najaf religious authority takes a certain position may have an important impact on the elections. If Najaf urges people to participate and vote for a certain party, this may play a role in changing the equation. But if it refrained from commenting, this may lead to a low turnout and pave the way for the reproduction of the current balances, perhaps with some minor changes.

On the Shiite level, it seems that both the Sadrist movement and the Al-Fateh coalition have the greatest chance of collecting the most votes, with the Sadrists likely to prevail due to their ability to benefit from the current electoral system. However, it does not seem that the Sadrists will be able to achieve a major breakthrough, and therefore any possible increase in the number of their representatives in parliament will be relative, and most likely limited. Hence, the question arises as to whether the “Sadrist movement” and “Al-Fateh” will repeat the 2018 scenario, agreeing on a consensual prime minister without specifying the “largest bloc”, or moving to form two opposing alliances, each of which seeks a majority, or on the contrary, they decide together to enter in one alliance. In the first case, a weak government will be formed replicating the current situation. In the second case, we will have a different and previously-untested scenario that entails threats of violence by the “losing” party. In the third case, a Shiite-Islamist pro-Iran government will be produced.

At the moment, the two sides are making moves that suggest they are heading towards two competing alliances. The Sadrists approached both the "Kurdistan Democratic Party" and the "Taqadum" party headed by Muhammad al-Halbousi, with the aim of forming an alliance more able to resist Iranian pressure, and ready to support Al-Kazemi's survival in office. Meanwhile, Al-Fateh sought to strengthen its relationship with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Azm Alliance headed by Khamis al-Khanjar. However, in light of the current fluidity of alliances, the absence of ideological commitment, and the predominance of the bargaining nature of political relations, these alliances may not see the light at all or be significantly affected by the election results.

Possible Scenarios

In light of these developments and dynamics, three basic scenarios can be expected for the course of the situation in the coming months and the chances of organizing early elections:

The first scenario is based on the assumption that the elections will be held on time, even if demonstrations, skirmishes and security incidents take place, as long as they do not turn into a comprehensive threat and lead to a complete collapse. This scenario also assumes that the Iranian and American sides will maintain a controlled level of tension between them in the Iraqi arena (a likely scenario).

The second scenario assumes that the crisis will escalate this summer, driven by more demonstrations and large-scale protests in the south and elsewhere. It also assumes that the armed factions will escalate their attacks against the backdrop of Iranian-American rivalry, threatening an already-fragile stability, leading to dangerous security events and political polarizations that do not allow the elections to be held on time (a possible scenario).

The third scenario is based on the hypothesis of a total collapse that may result from the outbreak of large protests that get out of control and lead to a wide outbreak of violence and the collapse of the whole situation in the country, especially in the event that Sadr’s militias clash with pro-Wilayat al-Faqih militias, triggering a Shiite-Shiite war (an unlikely scenario).

Conclusions

Iraq is facing a protracted crisis with political, social, and economic dimensions, which escalated this summer due to a significant deficit in electricity supply, and sparked a series of demonstrations and protests in several cities. At the same time, a large number of protest movement actors and civil forces announced their boycott of the upcoming elections due to the continued assassinations and harassment against activists and the absence of equal opportunities. While the US-Iranian tension casts a shadow over the Iraqi arena, especially in light of the ongoing escalation between pro-Iran armed factions and the US forces, the main political actors continue to affirm their commitment to the election date and have been rearranging ranks in preparation for it.

In general, if there is no major political and security escalation, seeing the elections held on October 10th, 2021, remains likely, with the possibility that their results will be affected by voter turnout. If voter turnout was high, perhaps at the invitation of Al-Sistani's authority, and that fraud was limited, the elections might result in a relative shift in the political map. But if voter turnout was low or medium, then it is likely that the current map will be reproduced with relative changes in weights. No radical solutions will be reached to address the socio-political crisis that resulted from the October 2019 protests. 

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