Iraq Postpones Date for Early Elections: Background and Scenarios

EPC | 11 Feb 2021

On the recommendation of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the Iraqi government decided to postpone the early parliamentary elections that were scheduled to be held from June to October 2021, which deepened doubts about the seriousness of the new date, especially in the light of the procrastination by the ruling parties in meeting the legal requirements to conduct this extraordinary election. This paper sheds light on the background of the postponement decision, the calculations of the political forces, and the scenarios for the future of the elections.

Technical obstacles with political overtones

The IHEC attributed the proposal to postpone the elections to October 2021, which was issued by the extraordinary meeting of its Board of Commissioners on 17 January 2021, to a number of technical difficulties, the most important of which being the expiration of the specified period for registering the political alliances, and the small number of alliances registered at the Department of Political Parties and Organisations Affairs according to the schedule of operations, which requires the extension of the registration period for alliances, consequently extending the registration period for candidates, as well as making room for United Nations (UN) experts and international observers to achieve the greatest possible degree of oversight and transparency in the upcoming electoral process, and to ensure compliance with the decision of the Council of Ministers (Cabinet ) regarding expanding the biometric registration and giving sufficient time for those eligible for it, and complete all technical preparations.

It is noteworthy that this position came in contradiction to the statement of the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jalil Adnan Khalaf, which he issued after he attended, on 14 January 2021, a meeting that included the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, the President of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG), in which he reaffirmed the IHEC’s readiness to hold the early parliamentary elections on the specified date, in response to the skepticism of some political actors and observers who thought early and for many reasons that the IHEC would unlikely adhere to the deadline of June 2021, given the Parliament’s procrastination in passing the new law of the Federal Supreme Court (FSC) or amending its current law to allow the FSC’s quorum to be completed after the death of one of its judges passed away and another judge retired, given that the Constitution stipulates that the election results be certified by the FSC in full quorum, in addition to the difficulties and objections facing the process of dividing the electoral districts on the basis of one district for every four parliamentary seats, due to the lack of a reliable population census, and finally, the government’s decision to raise the exchange rate of the dollar, which reduced the amount of the budget allocated for conducting the elections, which amounted to 329 billion dinars, from 274 million dollars to 226 million dollars at best, most of which is earmarked for the purchase of polling supplies from abroad, which necessitates the amendment of the Parliamentary Elections Funding Act issued on 17 December 2020, in addition to the need to pass the summer season, during which high temperatures reduce the efficiency of the two systems for checking voter cards and classifying and counting the votes, in the light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of school buildings that are used as polling stations lack air conditioning equipment and stable electrical power supplies.

These intersections clearly show the extent of the political influence on the procedural paths of the IHEC's work, even regardless of the implicit ethno-sectarian quota system that governed the election of the seven judges to its new Board of Commissioners in accordance with the law amending the law of the IHEC which was enacted by Parliament on 5 December 2019 in response to one of the three demands of the popular protest movement, namely: restructuring the IHEC, enacting a new election law, and holding early parliamentary elections.

Kadhimi's approach

Despite Kadhimi's position opposing the postponement of early elections, the proposal by the IHEC to delay the elections, accompanied by a full list of operational justifications, made it easier for him to take the decision that would give the new political entities that emerged late from the protest movement sufficient time to properly organise their ranks, promote their programmes and market their leaders in the media, as well as resolve the debates that erupted within the circles of the demonstrators between the trends of dreaming and realist revolutionaries, in order to attract the largest possible number of voters dissatisfied with the rule of the Shiite Islamic parties, especially those who boycotted the previous parliamentary elections and account for approximately 60 percent of the electoral bloc with whom the IHEC faces great difficulties in pushing them to update their data and obtain the new biometric electoral card. This prompted the government to issue controversial instructions regarding considering the biometric card one of the official documents required to complete any transaction, and directing ministries to oblige their employees to issue it under threat of withholding their salaries, as opposed to the massive turnout by the youth, who are voting for the first time, being the age group that formed the pillar of the protest movement and the driving force that sustained it for nearly a year despite the crackdown and intimidation campaigns.

Moreover, holding the elections in October 2021 would provide Kadhimi with sufficient opportunity to benefit from the largest public budget in the history of Iraq to start or resume work on a number of infrastructure projects, thus limiting the repercussions of the decision to raise the dollar exchange rate by creating jobs and moving the wheel of the economy, as well as the release of more than 350,000 job grades in the public sector, which have been suspended from the past two years, whose total occupants would constitute a substantial electoral bloc enough to turn positive results upside down. Furthermore, ten months are an amply sufficient time to clarify the policy of US President Joe Biden's administration towards Iraq, and the way Iran deals with the US presence in the country in the light of the possibilities of renegotiation whose signals are given by the new administration regarding the Iranian nuclear issue in parallel with the easing of US economic sanctions, and the reflection of all those circumstances on the political scene in terms of weakening or strengthening the electoral fortunes of the Shiite forces loyal to Iran.

Calculations of the political actors

With the exception of the Sadrist Movement, political actors, especially the pro-Iranian Shiites, did not show the slightest enthusiasm for running in early parliamentary elections. Indeed, their partial response to the demands of the demonstrators to reconstitute the IHEC and amend the election law was used cunningly to distract the protest movement with technical details and secondary debates, which gradually succeeded in dividing it between the trend seeking to change the regime and the one seeking to reform it from within using its own mechanisms. This was demonstrated by the adoption by Parliament of a law amending the election law in favour of the system of multiple small districts at the end of 2019 without scheduling the distribution of districts, which was not agreed upon until August 2020, when some political blocs returned to talk about the need to introduce amendments to the articles of the law to address some of the contradictions and intersections between some of its provisions.

This indicates that the postponement is nothing but another attempt by those blocs to buy time with the aim of proposing the amendment of the law at the critical moment, especially Article 15 concerning the division of districts that was approved during the peak of the protest movement, giving the Sadrist Movement, with its solid ideological grassroots and effective electoral machine, the ideal opportunity to seize no less than 70 seats of the upcoming parliament, at the expense of the other Shiite parties that lack specific grassroots and depend largely on the surplus votes obtained by the leaders and the loyalty of networks of beneficiaries, senior officials and employees, tribal sheikhs, and business interest circles that have formed around them.

Furthermore, the removal of the threat posed by former US President Donald Trump constituted an additional element of relaxation for the forces loyal to Iran, giving them a wide margin of manoeuvrability to extract essential concessions from the leader of the Sadrist Movement Muqtada al-Sadr, in a way that preserves each faction's share in Parliament, especially after Sadr lost the street card with his dramatic turn against the protest movement and the conduct by his followers of the campaign to liquidate the sit-in and demonstration squares and incite the arrest of activists on malicious charges and defamation of the demonstrators with or without justification.

An unreliable guarantee

While Article 39 of the early parliamentary elections law commits members of the security forces, the army and the displaced, i.e. those who are covered by the so-called "special voting", to obtain a biometric card (a card containing an electronic chip that contains the voter's information supported by a photo of the iris), in order to exercise their electoral right, it stipulates that the remaining eligible voters be registered in the voter register and have an electronic ballot card (including an electronic chip containing the voter's information and the thumbprint of the left hand). However, talk about “the importance of increasing the biometric registration rate and setting up mechanisms that assist in the registration process for the purpose of adopting the biometric card exclusively in the upcoming elections” now raises many objections, starting with ignoring the text of the law on adopting the electronic rather than the biometric card, the government's attempt to consider it an official document to force voters to update their data, and spreading the impression that it is a guaranteed method to prevent fraud and vote tampering, given that the opponents, most of whom advocate boycotting the elections, record several important observations, most notably the following:

1. The agreement of all conflicting political forces to violate the law by imposing the biometric card in the context of their efforts to compel citizens to participate in the elections and avoid the "scandal" of record abstention from voting in the May 2018 elections which threatens the legitimacy of the elections if challenged before the FSC.

2. The biometric card is not issued by the authority responsible for issuing personal identification documents. Therefore, it is not based on the records of the Iraqi citizenship departments, which means that more than one card could be issued under the same name or that cards could be issued with fake names, given that the verification devices in each electoral station contain records of the names and fingerprints of a specified number of voters, whose identities can be confirmed simply through fingerprint readers.

3. Since the 2010 elections, the main complaint of fraud has focused on the process of entering the results of the electoral centres into the central electronic system, especially the manipulation of the special ballot votes for members of the armed forces, the displaced and the expatriates.

4. The precedent of the theft of hundreds of thousands of electoral cards prior to the previous parliamentary elections, which the IHEC claimed at the time to be electronically invalidated as soon as it was revealed that they had disappeared without explaining the method used for this in the light of the fact that the electoral card verification devices did not contain any communication mechanism that could be controlled remotely.

5. Ignoring the other methods of falsifying the will of the voters, especially the intimidation and threat practised by the Shiite militias against the people of the villages and remote countryside in the liberated Sunni provinces in the 2018 elections.

6. Disclosure of the recent issuance of thousands of forged civil records in Diyala Governorate, and the spread of information about the registration by some persons of the names of unknown persons on their family registers in the citizenship departments, indicating the extent of the possibilities available to the influential forces to implement more complex and comprehensive fraud operations.

7. Doubts about the efficiency and reliability of the electronic counting and sorting devices that the political blocs insist that the IHEC return to use or an updated version thereof, despite the massive political crisis they caused in the last elections, putting the country on the brink of an armed clash and inflicting heavy damage on the confidence of candidates and voters alike in the integrity of the electoral process, which undermined the legitimacy of the parliament and the government that emerged from it, and created the climate for the outbreak of the October 2019 protests.

Possible scenarios

First scenario: exceeding the new date and heading towards holding the elections as normally scheduled in early May 2022, which is a likely scenario, and is based on a number of facts, the most important of which are the following:

- The attempt by the Shiite forces loyal to Iran to prevent the establishment of the early election precedent and putting the fate of future governments over which they aspire to re-share control at the mercy of the street, especially in the light of expectations of worsening economic and social crises due to the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, seeking instead to withdraw confidence from the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi and complete the election cycle under a consensual Shiite Islamist prime minister.

- Resort by Iran's allies to the tactic of wasting time in resolving the FSC issue, both in terms of amending its current law or passing its new law, to impose an amendment to the election law and the method of dividing electoral districts in a way that preserves their share of power and prevents the widening of the difference between them and the Sadrist Movement, given that the latter’s win of more parliamentary seats and its pursuit to obtain the post of prime minister would have grave repercussions on the balance of power within the Shiite house that may not be possible to challenge without risking sparking the Shiite-Shiite civil war.

- The low rate of updating voter data in the Sunni governorates, which did not exceed 35 percent until the end of 2020, which constitutes a concern for representatives of the Sunni component, especially in the governorates of mixed sectarian and nationalist composition in Diyala, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and, relatively speaking, Nineveh, which increases the likelihood of procrastination in passing the FSC Law pending obtaining guarantees with regard to the integrity of the electoral process in their main strongholds.

- Difficulties in completing the voting procedures, especially updating voter data, where nearly 14 million voters out of 26 million still do not have biometric voting cards, and a large percentage of them either have lost or do not have the regular electronic voting cards, or the data therein are erroneous.

- The lack of desire among the overwhelming majority of the Members of Parliament (MPs), who are supposed to vote in favour of dissolving Parliament sixty days prior to the date of the elections, to sacrifice ten months of their parliamentary membership, especially in the light of the new system of dividing the electoral districts that undermines their chances of re-election in the face of tribal and regional leaders and businessmen.

- The halt of the protest movement and the decline in the Sadrist Movement's capability to use the street to put pressure on the political forces, Parliament and the government, as a result of the Movement’s turn against the demonstrators, large groups of whom proceeded towards organising themselves into political entities in preparation for participating in the elections.

Second scenario: holding the early parliamentary elections at their new date. This scenario is based on a number of facts, the most important of which being the following:

- The desire of the pro-Iranian Shiite forces to end the period of Mustafa al-Kadhimi's government as soon as possible, as he is considered an outsider and has nothing to do with the Shiite Islamic spectrum, and to restore the share of the Shiite community in power and governance, similar to the Sunni and Kurdish components.

- The increase in the chances of agreement between the Sadrist Movement and its Shiite opponents to reconsider the parliamentary election law and the electoral district system, especially that it requires, according to former members of the IHEC, redrafting of many of its contradictory paragraphs, starting with the condition to use the electronic rather than the biometric ballot card in order to reduce the time available to the political entities emanating from the protest movement to organise their ranks, promote their programmes, and gain the support of more potential voters, in addition to preventing their agreement to form a single electoral alliance that may lead to the translation of the votes of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into an influential parliamentary bloc.

- The employment by the Shiite actors of the Ashura season [in reference to the day the Prophet’s grandson was martyred in Karbala], whose last days coincide with the launch of the propaganda campaign to stimulate the sectarian sentiment in the Shiite community, thus pushing it to re-vote in their favour at the expense of civil and secular political entities, especially those affiliated with the October Revolution.

- The use of the new election date, the debate over the election law and the FSC law, then the election campaign and the debate over the integrity of the elections and the argument over the candidates for the presidency, the premiership and parliament speakership, to distract the street for the rest of 2021 away from its economic and living concerns that are expected to intensify in the light of the outbreak of new strains of the coronavirus.

- Exploiting the opportunity of the new US administration's preoccupation with dealing with the repercussions of the coronavirus epidemic to produce a government closer to Iran and its allies in the region.

Conclusion

  • On the recommendation of the IHEC, the Iraqi government has decided to postpone the early parliamentary elections that were to be held in June 2021, to October 2021, attributing the reasons for putting forward the postponement to a number of technical difficulties, mainly the expiration of the specified period for registering political alliances, and the small number of alliances registered at the Department of Political Parties and Organisations Affairs according to the schedule of operations, which necessitates the extension of the period of registration of alliances, and consequently the extension of the period of registration of candidates.
  • Despite the position of Prime Minister Kadhimi opposing the postponement of the early elections, the proposal by the IHEC of the postponement, accompanied by a complete list of operational justifications, made it easier for him to take the decision that would give the new political entities that emerged late from the protest movement sufficient time to organise their ranks, promote their programmes and market their leaders, in order to attract the largest possible number of voters dissatisfied with the rule of the Shiite Islamic parties, especially those who boycotted the previous parliamentary elections and constitute approximately 60 percent of the electoral bloc.
  • There are two scenarios for the future of the electoral process: the first being that the new date would be skipped and the elections held at their normal date at the beginning of May 2022; and the second being holding the early parliamentary elections on their new date. So far, the first scenario seems to be the likely one in the light of several facts, the most important of which being the endeavour by the Shiite forces loyal to Iran to prevent setting the precedent of early elections, thus putting the fate of the future governments over which they aspire to re-share control at the mercy of the street; the resort by Iran's allies to the tactic of wasting time in resolving the FSC issue; the difficulties associated with completing the polling procedures, in particular updating voter data; the unwillingness of the overwhelming majority of MPs to sacrifice ten months of their parliamentary membership; and the halt of the protest movement and the decline in the Sadrist Movement's capability to use the street to pressure the political forces, Parliament and the government.

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