Iraq’s Fall Elections Can Help Stabilize the Country—if Steps are Taken Now

For the first time since the outbreak of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) conflict, Iraqis across the country will be able to make their voices heard at the ballot box in provincial elections in the fall of 2017. Voters will elect provincial councils in every governorate, and especially in places affected by the Islamic State conflict, the composition and effectiveness of these councils will be important to post-insurgency reconstruction. However, political and social conditions in various provinces do not bode well for the legitimacy and stability the elections are supposed to produce.

Over the past four years, the central government in Baghdad displayed its weakness and lackluster response to the Islamic State in 2014. This round of elections will be a major signal of the direction for Iraq in the coming decade. No reliable census exists for Iraq since 1957 and elections such as these are one of the only metrics for measuring population and balance of ethnoreligious groups in an area. The last provincial elections took place in 2013. Delays earlier this year, due to the war against the Islamic State, pushed this round until the fall. Now that an election date is scheduled certain national and sub-national upheavals and controversies could disrupt elections. A new wave of sectarian strife throughout Iraq could also occur due to the elections.

This year in Iraq on March 21, the holiday of Newroz heralded the Kurdish new year; the holiday was also the center of controversy. Outrage erupted across Iraq when the Governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim hoisted a Kurdistan regional flag above government offices, as a celebration of the Kurdish holiday; an administrative misstep, as such a place is to only be reserved for the Iraqi national flag. The bulk of vehemence against this move came from Turkmen and Arabs in Kirkuk, who have felt marginalized by Kurdish hegemony in the governorate ever since the area was claimed by the Peshmerga. Now it will be up to Kirkuk’s provincial council, a mix of the region’s three primary ethnicities, whether Karim’s action will be legal precedent.

Aside from this, Kirkuk presents its own set of challenges. Despite having no official claim to the territory, Kurdish authorities have taken great liberties in governing and securing this ethnically diverse province with their own agenda ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government. Just in the last year, Human Rights Watch released several reports detailing human rights abuses and violations by officials on the payroll of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. One report describes a systematic demolition and eviction campaign against homes of Arab families, ironically mirroring Saddam’s own ‘Arabization’ policies that attempted to drive the Kurds out of Kirkuk. When considering the elections, this amounts to an aggressive form of gerrymandering on the part of the Security Committee of the Kirkuk governorate, with the Peshmerga and the Asayish creating an electorate that is more predominantly Kurdish. When elections do occur in September, there is a legitimate fear that lack of Arab or Turkmen representation will cause strife or even election-related violence.

Another point of these elections has to do with participation of Shia militias in local elections. Under Iraqi law, members of security services cannot run for public office. However, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or al-Hashd al-Shaabi fighters are considered a paramilitary force. This has erupted into controversy on sectarian and political lines. Even among the Shia political bloc, there are those like opposition cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who are opposed to PMF participation and have staged massive demonstrations against the government, versus supporters of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose hardline, sectarian, anti-Sunni stances put them in favor of the PMFs voting and running for office. In March, Sadr led protests in Baghdad, threatening to boycott the elections, due to perceived corruption of Iraq’s election commission, and the accusations that the government was fomenting sectarian strife by allowing the PMFs to participate.  

With these points of contention, it is unclear whether the scheduled elections will have enough perceived legitimacy to keep the country’s sectarian and political conflicts at bay. In the case of Sunni Arabs especially, these elections will show whether they have a place and a voice in the political system.

As previous elections in Iraq have shown, the legitimacy of elections, or lack thereof, can have monumental impacts on interreligious and ethnic relations. In the wake of the parliamentary elections of 2014, various factions exchanged politically motivated attacks, such as the suicide attack on a Shia paramilitary group rally that killed thirty-seven people in Baghdad. In another strike, bombers dressed in military uniforms, detonated devices at polling stations across the country and killed dozens of voters. Voting in many parts of Anbar governorate did not even occur. The 2014 elections were the first in post-Saddam Iraq to have no US oversight. In the 2010 parliamentary election, it took eight months of backdoor negotiation to form a government, after a series of constitutional disputes surrounding the issue of voter participation. If similar levels of election-related violence occur, and if Sadr and his large following in fact boycott, then stability in the country, especially in Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Baghdad will continue its downward trajectory. If Sunni Arabs are disenfranchised by electoral rules or the participation of sectarian paramilitary members, then it will be extremely difficult to reach a political solution to Iraq’s ongoing insurgency as well. Delaying elections, however, is simply putting off the problem, and further delays will simply create a more hostile political climate for local elections to take place.

One legitimate attempt at mitigating these issues was the 2015 Parties Law, which provided stipulations for parties registering for elections. Included among these was a ban on parties with racist, takfirist, ethnic, or sectarian platforms. It also requires parties to democratically elect their leaders, prevents parties from having paramilitary wings and from receiving funds from foreign donors. Last year these provisions were challenged in the Supreme Court by none other than Nouri al-Maliki himself, but the former prime minister lost his appeal and the articles were upheld. This letter of the law has potential to support free and fair elections in September, but it is doubtful if the Iraqi High Electoral Commission has the capability or willpower to enforce these regulations for every registered party across nineteen governorates.

Iraqi elections can either build the people’s trust in the government, or lead to unrest. To ensure the former, the Iraqi government, ideally with support from the United States and other international actors, needs to start putting in place mechanisms to ensure appropriate voter participation, enforce the Parties Law, and prevent displacement resulting from the war on the Islamic State and local conflicts from altering demographics.

Husayn Hosoda is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Riot police stand in front of demonstrators during a protest demanding an overhaul of the elections supervision commission ahead of provincial elections due in September, in Baghdad,Iraq February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani