Iraq’s Elections: Scenarios

EPC | 23 Jun 2021

Tensions between the Iraqi government and the "Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)" continue to run high as systematic kidnappings and assassinations by the Iran-backed militia remain unabated. This has pushed grassroots to call for boycotting the vote similar to what happened before the 2018 elections against the wishes of government politicians and parliamentarians who continue to sound the alarm over any potential deferral of the elections.

This paper attempts to anticipate future scenarios for the Iraqi elections based on the current situation in the country.

First Scenario: Postponing the Elections to April 2022

This scenario is based on the possibility of ignoring the idea of holding a snap election as demanded by popular protests and supported by top Shiite authority, Ali al-Sistani. Accordingly, the elections will be held on their constitutional date for many reasons that may be announced in the coming months, including the failure of Parliament to dissolve itself in accordance with Article 64 of the Constitution, which is the only constitutional way to hold early elections in Iraq. In sum, this means that the political blocs may agree to postpone the elections to achieve their political and economic goals, most notably:

  1.  Despite the fact that political blocs, especially the Shiite ones, are convinced that October is the right time for elections, their internal conflicts, especially in the “Al-Fateh” bloc, over the division of electoral districts, may be the main reason behind any request to postpone the elections or to approve it when it is proposed by other blocs. The new election law, which approved the multi-member constituencies concept, imposed on each electoral alliance the division of those constituencies, and gave each component within that coalition a group of constituencies believed to include its grassroots without being challenged by another party from the same alliance so that votes would not be dispersed. However, major differences in the "Al-Fateh" alliance over the districts of Baghdad and Diyala and southern cities, may lead to the postponement of the elections.
  2.  The blocs in the current parliament do not want to lose 7 months (from next October to April of next year) of parliament privileges and financial resources provided by the ministries and departments they run, especially since some small and medium blocs do not guarantee victory and return to parliament again, and thus will play the largest role in pushing for postponing the elections.
  3. Some blocs are wary that the idea of holding a snap election will be raised with every political crisis in the future. This is due to the fact that the main  Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs believe that they are responsible for the shape and nature of the political system in Iraq, and do not want to change in order for it to continue to serve their interests. They also view early elections as a partial success for the popular protests; something they do not want to see materializes. 
  4. Some Sunni blocs, such as the Salvation and Development Front led by Osama al-Nujaifi, make the displacement crisis and the reconstruction of liberated cities a reason to demand the postponement of the elections, or as they put it, “to provide the appropriate atmosphere in the liberated cities before the elections.” This demand may be supported by other parties, such as the "Azem" coalition led by Khamis al-Khanjar, which believes that the popularity of the Speaker of Parliament and the leader of the Takadum Party is at its peak now. Therefore, postponing the elections will be an opportunity to change the rules of competition, such as changing the election law or pursuing corruption claims and accusations against some strong hopefuls to ultimately remove them from the race.

Certainly, this scenario will have many repercussions that can be summarized as follows:

  • Popular discontent with the ruling political class may escalate, and demonstrations may return in the central and southern regions with greater demands that may relate to changing the partisan Electoral Commission, and excluding parties that possess weapons from the electoral race.
  • The political parties affected by the current election law may take advantage of the time provided by postponing the elections, to legislate a new electoral law that suits their party interests.
  • With the fall of the condition of "early elections" that the Shiite parties stipulated on Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi without being the reason behind the delay, the second condition will necessarily fall, which is to prevent lists close to Al-Kazemi from participating in the elections. The deal to assume the premiership by Al-Kazemi is no longer valid, and the signatory parties have violated it.
  • In the event that calls for a boycott of the elections escalate due to the lack of an appropriate security and political atmosphere in the spring of next year, the lists representing the "October" protests may withdraw from the race. However, if the government manages to create the right atmosphere and convince everyone to participate, it is possible that the number of new lists and independent figures in the elections will increase.
  • The Shiite blocs will again find themselves in an indirect confrontation with Ali al-Sistani, and their demand to postpone the elections will be seen in defiance of al-Sistani's calls, which increases the gap between the political parties and the religious seminary in Najaf.

Second Scenario: Suspending the Constitution, Canceling the Elections, and Declaring a State of Emergency

This scenario may become a reality if the government fails to provide the appropriate security environment after postponing the elections to next year, for the following reasons:

  1.  The continued kidnappings and assassinations carried out by militias affiliated with the Shiite parties participating in the elections, against activists and candidates, and the failure of security forces to safeguard the lives of voters and candidates.
  2.  The militias' continued attacks on foreign interests in Iraq, which may lead to a confrontation in which the United States and the international coalition may intervene.
  3.  The parties' refusal to give up their armed wings and their public declaration that they possess what they call the "weapon of resistance." This is in addition to continuing to challenge the law and the government, which is working to limit arms to the state and combat organized corruption led by parties and armed groups affiliated with them.
  4.  The strong return of the protesters to the streets and squares and their refusal to hold elections due to the deteriorating living and security conditions. This is in addition to the protesters' realization that the elections only prolong the life of the current political system, and will not lead to any tangible political change.
  5.  It is possible for the UN Security Council to intervene to impose UN supervision on the Iraqi elections. However, Shiite parties’ and blocs’ rejection of such international role may lead to the cancellation of the elections and driving the country down into constitutional vacuum. Another possibility is that international supervision and the conditions set by the UNSC may prevent armed parties from participating in the elections, which may push such groups to take to the streets and disrupt the elections.

This scenario will lead to dramatic changes in the country, including:

  • The government's move to declare a state of emergency and form specialized committees to rewrite the constitution.
  • The outbreak of an armed confrontation between the security forces and the Iran-backed PMF militias. The scene may turn into a civil war if the confrontation is prolonged.
  • Iran will try by all means to bring the situation back to what it was in Iraq before the constitution was suspended, and it will work to provide its allies in Iraq with money, military and logistical supplies.
  • If the government succeeds in quickly suppressing and curtailing the militias, the transitional period will be short, especially if the pro-Iranian parties are convinced that participating in the constitution-writing process and drafting new elections laws will spare them material and human losses, and guarantee them a real “political” role after the elections.

Third Scenario: Holding the Elections on Time (on October 10th, 2021)

This scenario is based on the assumption that elections will be held according to the new election law which increases the number of electoral districts and allows for direct individual nomination. So far, this appears to be the most likely scenario for the following reasons:

  1. According to their official discourse, the Shiite blocs are wary of the possibility of postponing the elections and warn of such move because they believe that delaying the vote is in the interest of the current Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kazemi, to remain in power as long as possible and enable him to make important changes in the structure of the state and the security services. They also fear the continuation of plans designed to curtail the influence of militias loyal to Iran and the crackdown on "corrupt figures" by the Anti-Corruption Committee headed by Lieutenant-General Ahmed Abu Ragheef. All of this means depriving them of an important financial lifeline they enjoy from systematic corruption pursued by the vast majority of political blocs and militias.
  2. Shiite blocs and militias believe that next October is the most appropriate time for the elections because it will coincide with the month of "Muharram" and the accompanying Shiite rituals related to the killing of Imam Hussein bin Ali. Therefore, they are counting on evoking the emotions of Shiite voters and utilizing the grievances raised by this sect during that month to achieve political and propaganda gain that may help them win the votes of undecided social segments or those who constantly change their convictions. They also fear that Al-Kazemi's continued anti-corruption and anti-militia policies will cement his popularity and the popularity of the political parties supporting him, and thus reduce their chances of securing a sizable representation in the parliament.
  3. Extremist parties and militias believe that they now control, by use of arms and money, many electoral districts and that any postponement of the elections may be accompanied by a change in the security situation in a manner that is not in their interest. They are also afraid of changing the electoral law in a way that would deny them influence over small districts.
  4. The fact that the Electoral Commission has completed the bulk of the technical and logistical preparations for the elections and allocated the necessary funds, and therefore there is no excuse for postponing the vote, at least in terms of preparation.

In light of the current political scene in Iraq, the withdrawal of the most prominent new electoral lists and independent figures, including the “Tayar al-Marhala” and “Al-Izdihar” and opposition MP Faeq Sheikh Ali, and the continuation of popular discontent with the current political class that controls the electoral districts and the Electoral Commission, and the absence of a real strong competitor, the implications of this scenario will be as follows:

  • The "Saairun" bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr will get more than 40 seats in the new parliament, and the same or more for the "Al-Fateh" bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri. Other moderate Shiite blocs such as the "National Wisdom Movement" led by Ammar al-Hakim and "Al-Nasr Coalition" led by Haider al-Abadi will get a smaller number of seats (less than 20 seats), in a repeat of the 2018 elections.
  • The struggle to determine the "largest parliamentary bloc" tasked with naming the prime minister will continue between the Sadr and Amiri blocs for a long period that may exceed the 30 days specified in the constitution, as happened in the previous elections when each party tried to attract other Sunni and Kurdish blocs to form that largest bloc.
  • Apparently, the "Azem" alliance led by Khamis al-Khanjar is the closest to the "Al-Fateh" alliance, while the "Takadum" bloc led by al-Halbousi is close to al-Sadr, who has been trying for weeks to build a strategic alliance with the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani.
  • This situation may allow Al-Sadr to nominate the next prime minister through a compromise between "Al-Fateh" and "Saairun", in a manner that ensures the sharing of positions according to the size of each party in parliament. This means that the political situation will continue as it is without any real change, and the popular protests will likely return once the next government is formed.
  • The relationship between Baghdad and Washington may grow tense due to the failure of the partisan prime minister, who is subject to sectarian blocs, to prevent missile attacks on U.S. interests. Also, Iraq's openness to the Arab world may come to a halt.

According to this scenario, there may be a surprise in the election results at that time, and the repercussions of holding the elections on time may be different, as follows:

  • The possibility that Shiite and Sunni lists loyal to Tehran and Doha will see their seats decline (that is, they will not exceed the 50-seat barrier in total). On the other hand, the lists described as moderate may get a larger number of seats, led by "Sairoon", "Al-Hikma" and "Al-Nasr", in addition to the lists produced by the popular protests, which would enable them to form the largest parliamentary bloc away from the "Al-Fateh" bloc.
  • An independent or non-partisan prime minister who is accepted by the popular protest movement and by Arab and Western countries may be chosen.
  • Tensions may continue between the new government and the PMF militias, as is the case between the government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and Shiite militias loyal to Tehran.

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