Will Iraq Really See Early Elections?

EPC | 02 Sep 2020

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took the political elites by surprise on July 31, 2020 when he announced that early elections would be held on June 6, 2021. He has since been leading a hidden political battle with the largest parliamentary blocs over the early elections.

This paper sheds light on al-Kadhimi’s motives for bringing the elections forward, the stances of the political elites regarding the move, and the prospects for the early elections.

Motives and obstacles for al-Kadhimi

There are various signs that al-Kadhimi’s announcement of the early election date is an attempt by his Government to outrun Iraq’s problems, especially the energy, health, and public service crises. The move has also given the Government’s opponents ammunition for a systematic media offensive, specifically the pro-Iran Shia parties, which are attempting to exploit public protests and the failings of bloated government sectors to criticize government performance and cast doubt on the new Prime Minister’s ability to discharge his duties.

Al-Kadhimi argues that he is bringing forward the elections to fulfil his government program, a key point of which is to hold early elections. However, there are several clear obstacles:

  1. Parliament has not finalized the draft electoral law, which it voted on in principle in December 2019, as there is still disagreement about whether or not to distribute constituencies within governorates, and about other sections of the law).
  2. The Independent High Electoral Commission needs a large budget, estimated at $1 billion.
  3. The draft Federal Court Act has not been adopted. The Federal Supreme Court validates the election results but is currently suspended owing to a lack of quorum.
  4. The security situation is unstable, weapons are proliferating outside of government authority, and militias are widespread.

For all except the last of these problems, the ball is in parliament’s court. Al‑Kadhimi is keen for that to remain the case; he is hoping to score a win among the street protestors, who took to the streets in November 2019 to call for the creation of a new parliament that would be the true heart of a government that represented the ambitions of the people. That can only happen through early elections in which Iraqis participate effectively. It is evident that al-Kadhimi needs to secure political and popular support to ensure that he can act freely during the remainder of his term.

The proposal to schedule the elections for June was odd, given that the five legislative elections held since 2003 took place in winter or spring, the most recent being in May 2018. Moreover, summer is known as the season of dissent, in particular against poor public services and electricity shortages. The protest hotspots are always in the regions affiliated with political Shia Islam, namely the governorates of southern Iraq and the mid-Euphrates, in addition to Baghdad. Was al-Kadhimi’s choice of date intended as a blow to the elites that have dominated the political system for the last 17 years?

Positions of the political blocs 

The confused positions of all the political blocs became evident as soon as al-Kadhimi finished his televised speech announcing the earlier election date. While most leaders and blocs have received al‑Kadhimi’s decision positively, some have expressed concern about the date. Many blocs have started disputing the Government’s legal authority to propose early elections without consulting parliament, which was evident in the concealed objection contained in the words of Nouri al-Maliki, leader of the State of Law Coalition, who stressed that the decision needed to be taken back to parliament. Noting that the parliament would be required to “dissolve itself” two months before the elections were held, al-Maliki stressed that no party had the authority to dissolve parliament without its consent.

Several parliamentary blocs have shifted towards apparent support for the new election date. Mohammed al-Halbousi, leader of the Iraqi Forces Coalition and Speaker of Parliament, advocated holding elections “earlier” than those proposed by al-Kadhimi, but stipulated that the “three presidencies” – the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of Parliament – and the political parties must be involved in setting the new date. The Sunni blocs in the Salvation and Development Front, led by Usama al-Nujaifi, supported the latest government proposal but set out a number of conditions for participation in the elections, most importantly, the creation of an inventory of uncontrolled weapons in the possession of the State and their direct supervision by the United Nations, and the exclusive use of biometric ID cards to prevent fraud.

In a departure from all the conditions and proposals against the Government’s timing, Ammar al-Hakim’s Iraqiyoun bloc and Haider al-Abadi’s Victory bloc expressed their full support for al‑Kadhimi’s decision. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani, has been the most explicit in its opposition to the timing, on the grounds that parliament had not finalized the laws required for the political process, and describing the Prime Minister’s call for elections on June 6, 2021 as “more political than legal or democratic”. This stance is far from the evasive political rhetoric of some political blocs.

Loyalist blocs and the early elections

The pro-Iran Shia political blocs of the Fatah Alliance hold varying positions on the coming elections. The Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), the coalition’s key forces, are pushing for early elections in order to preserve the privileges gained from the existing political system. Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri welcomed the June 2021 elections and proposed bringing them forward to April. Mohammed al-Ghabban, his deputy and leader of the coalition, attributed the choice of month to suitable weather and the fact that it would allow the elections to take place just before the month of Ramadan.

Badr and al-Sadiqoun (the parliamentary bloc of Qais Khazali’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which has 15 MPs) approved of holding early elections, on the grounds that the demonstrations in protest squares are declining and fragmenting. Protestors are less active because of the coronavirus pandemic, and their loss of direction and failure to form a broad political movement has convinced the two blocs that they can exploit the break-up of the protest movement through early elections to propel themselves back to the forefront of the political scene. For Badr and al‑Sadiqoun, the early elections are an opportunity to rid themselves of al‑Kadhimi, who threatens their influence and the rest of the loyalist blocs, particularly as Fatah Alliance’s leadership (Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) believes that the elections preserve the coalition’s popular support and electoral weight, as well as the Sadrist movement. There are several reasons for this:

  1. In addition to the Sadrist movement and the State of Law Coalition, the Fatah Alliance has deep roots in the Iraqi State, hindering the functioning of the current interim Government.
  2. The extreme partisanism and the absence of unified political discourse in the protest squares is in the interests of radical forces, above all the Fatah Alliance.
  3. The loyalist blocs have armed control of most of the regions with population momentum in Baghdad and the governorates of southern Iraq and the mid-Euphrates, ensuring that they dominate the ballot box.
  4. Holding elections against a backdrop of tension and general popular frustration causes the silent majority, who are needed in order to effect change, to boycott the vote, as happened in 2018. This benefits the traditional political forces, especially as it guarantees that their active supporters participate in the elections, giving them their usual significant head start.
  5. The form of the new electoral law is unclear and still does not reassure the civic powers.

Al-Sadiqoun has said that it is satisfied with holding elections in June 2021, as long as the issue of the largest bloc is settled beforehand, as though that would give an early indication of a parliamentary victory. The bloc’s spokesman, MP Naeem al-Aboudi, said on Twitter that the early elections were a good, effective step because they would determine the true clout of each party and bloc and dispel the illusions pervasive on social networking sites.

In contrast, small loyalist blocs within the Fatah Alliance (such as MP Ahmed al-Asadi’s Al‑Sanad, and various other MPs whose identities are not clear, such as those in the Imam Ali Battalions, the Hezbollah Battalions, and the Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions) deem the early elections a threat to their current political and parliamentary presence, as the Shia elites have been losing the support of the Shia masses in the governorates of southern Iraq, the mid-Euphrates, and Baghdad since October 2019. Furthermore, their public support has been waning, except among their military members in the combat brigades of the Popular Mobilization Forces. Consequently, they are opposed to the stance of Badr and Al-Sadiqoun.

President Saleh and the interests of the two Kurdish parties

In a statement delivered on August 4, 2020, President Barham Salih affirmed his support for Al‑Kadhimi’s proposed date for the early elections. Despite praising the Prime Minister’s announcement, which was “consistent with the undertakings in the Government’s program”, Salih’s statement may belie his true position, namely, to not upset the Kurdish blocs that won him the presidency, specifically the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, which runs the autonomous region of Kurdistan alongside its ally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Both parties have rejected holding the elections in June 2021. However much Salih may seem to represent rationality in the political system, he will not support the decisions of central Government at the expense of the region of Kurdistan governed by these two parties.

In his statement, Salih settled the debate about the authority of the entity that dissolves parliament just before the elections, saying that “if the Government presents a proposal to dissolve parliament, we intend to approve its submission to parliament for a vote”. He added: “With the adoption of parliament’s decision, we will officially decide a date no more than two months from the dissolution of parliament and in accordance with the constitution”. The President is therefore confirming that the official authority to dissolve parliament is vested in parliament itself, but this cannot happen until political consensus is achieved among the major blocs at the very least. At this point, we may see substantial disagreement about whether or not to dissolve parliament, thus delaying the possibility of holding early elections, because some political blocs fear that they will lose their current positions under the existing structure in parliament, the Government, or the Presidential Office.

The 2021 elections: Expected scenarios

Scenario 1: The legislative elections are held on June 6, 2021, and all or most of the blocs participate. This scenario depends mainly on the following factors:

  1. Political consensus: The major parties agree on the proposed date set by al-Kadhimi, regardless of the opposition of the small powers.
  2. Mounting protest pressure: If street protests return as strong as before, the blocs will be forced to hold the elections on June 6, 2021.
  3. Al-Kadhimi’s resolve to hold the elections: Al-Kadhimi confronts the blocs and threatens them with the anger of the masses, disregarding the compromises made behind the scenes in the political process, making them face up to reality. In his meeting with the electoral commission on August 14, 2020, al‑Kadhimi emphasized his Government’s determination to “hold elections on the date set, as they are a public demand and in line with the directives and wish of the political powers, in addition to being a Governmental priority”.
  4. The electoral law: Parliament expedites the vote on electoral laws.
  5. Position of the Shia religious authority: The Shia religious authority had demanded that the elections be brought forward. Al-Kadhimi holds an important document that he could use against those who oppose the election date and the elections in general.

Scenario 2: The major Sunni and Shia political blocs, joined by the two Kurdish parties, agree on holding elections earlier than June 2021, specifically in the spring. The likelihood of this depends on the following:

  1. The conviction of the traditional political elites that the protest squares have disintegrated and failed to form a political entity of concern, especially the radical Shia blocs.
  2. Utilitarian abuses among allies of the political regime encourage them to set a suitable date other than June (for example, the Kurds reach an agreement with the Shia parties in exchange for altering the electoral law for the benefit of the Kurdish region), and increase the possibility of holding the elections in April, which is the date proposed by the leadership of the Fatah Alliance. In parallel, the blocs within the Fatah Alliance agree to re-enter a unified list, and Badr and Al-Sadiqoun support the small loyalist blocs following a specific mechanism.   

Scenario 3 (the most likely scenario): The elections are postponed by al-Kadhimi, as holding them in June requires general political solidarity and support from the blocs, without which the Government cannot proceed with the elections next year. The current circumstances prevent the early elections for several reasons, including:  

  1. The major political blocs will not support early elections in the summer, the season of popular dissent, which could lead to their defeat in the polls, especially if voter turnout is high.
  2. The electoral commission needs at least 10 months before starting to organize the proposed June elections. This has not been possible because the commission does not have the necessary budget (in the region of $1 billion) at a time when Iraq is suffering from a severe fiscal crisis. 
  3. So far, the dissolution of parliament before the June elections has been unlikely. On this issue, consensus is king, but the existing political climate does not suggest a true consensus among the blocs regarding the election date set by al-Kadhimi.
  4. Parliament may fail to finalize the required laws, such as the Federal Court Act and the Electoral Act, before the elections. Parliament, which has simply not been able to agree on these two acts, must pass them quickly.

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