Iraq's interim Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi at the polling station.

Parliamentary elections in Iraq
Change or political stagnation in Baghdad?

Will Iraq's parliamentary elections bring change? The new electoral law, which allowed independent candidates to stand for the first time, provided a golden opportunity. But not many people took advantage of it. And voter turnout was shamefully low. Birgit Svensson reports from Baghdad and Mosul

First, the good news: the parliamentary elections in Iraq went smoothly and without any major incidents. The normal state of affairs for other countries, particularly in Europe, is worth a special mention in Iraq. All too often, elections have been accompanied by terrorist attacks on polling stations and voters, with extremists trying to disrupt or even stop the electoral process.

The message: Iraq should by no means become a democratic state. Security has been stepped up in recent years, but Interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi remained wary and took the precaution of closing the airports for three days and having his F-16 fighter jets circle over Baghdad, Basra and Mosul – to support the army in safeguarding the polling stations, he explained.

The only shots heard on election night were prompted by the rejoicing of politicians and their parties who thought they had won. The Election Commission (IHEC) will announce whether that is indeed the case in a few days when the final results come in. In the meantime, it is warning against speculation and rumours, because in some polling stations a recount has to be done by hand.

A new electronic counting system was installed to prevent imponderables and forgeries. But at some polling places the helpers were inadequately trained in its use, while in other cases the system simply failed. What the Election Commission was however able to announce only hours after the polls closed was the voter turnout. And that's the bad news: 42 percent – an all-time low. 

Independent candidate Nour Ahmad Alkhawan in Baghdad (photo: Birgit Svensson)
Iraq's parliament is becoming more female: never before have so many women stood for election. Here is an election poster of independent candidate Nour Ahmad Alkhawan in Baghdad. She is one of 936 women who ran for the 329 seats in parliament. "She ran on a party ticket in the last election, in 2018," writes Birgit Svensson. "But now she is on her own. And she feels better that way. The people are fed up with political parties that have failed to drive the country forward, lining their own pockets instead"

Setting a course for the future

On election day, cars equipped with loudspeakers took to the streets of Mosul and other Iraqi cities urging people to vote. The appeal was accompanied by the Iraqi national anthem. The tinny male voice fell silent for a moment only at noon when the muezzin calls people to prayer.

Shortly before the polling stations opened at 7 a.m., the patriotic music began ringing out through the streets, continuing non-stop until 6 p.m., when the polls closed. By then, over 20 million Iraqis had had an opportunity to cast their votes. But few took advantage of it. And yet, turnout in this election in particular is critical for the future of the country, because these parliamentary elections in Iraq will set the future course.

Change or stagnation is the question. Fundamental issues are at stake. Iraq's political system itself was up for a vote here.

If these elections actually succeed in moving the country a step further towards democracy, Iraq could become a beacon in a sea of autocrats, dictators and ayatollahs. 

At around 9 p.m., the "Beitna" in Mosul's Old Town fills up with mainly male guests. "Our house", the meaning of the name in English, is both a cafe and cultural meeting place. Sakkar, a Mosul resident in his mid-twenties, rescued it from the ruins of the war against IS, lovingly renovated it with friends, and turned it into a ray of hope amidst the rubble of West Mosul. Sometimes the cafe hosts cultural events, small concerts or improv evenings.

Mosul – kingmaker in the north?

But most of the time the guests sit at the tables playing dominoes, smoking a hookah, and drinking tea, sweet Turkish coffee or hot "Numi Basra" – a vitamin-C-packed drink made from dried black lemons. This evening is different, with guests engaging in animated discussions. The elections will take place the next day and "intihabat" is on everyone's lips. A small, non-representative poll among the guests shows that the majority will be voting. However, some still don't know who to vote for. When asked whether they will vote for an independent candidate or for a party, the response varies.

While there is a great deal of support for the new electoral law, which for the first time makes room for independent candidates, many are sceptical that they will succumb to bribes from the parties and, once in parliament, relinquish their independence. "People are disillusioned with politics and so they are staying away," is one explanation proffered for the low turnout.

But there could be a surprise, says someone else: if the Shia parties lose significant votes in the south and people vote for the independent candidates instead, they will end up being the kingmakers in the north. Mosul would then have far more say in Baghdad. This optimism is infectious and unexpected. Because Mosul more than any other city in Iraq has been the scene of terrorism, religious extremism, destruction and devastation in recent years: first by al-Qaida, then IS. While a relatively large number of voters turned up at the polls in Mosul itself, turnout in the rest of Nineveh province was poor.

Protest movement boycotts election

Numerous boycotts were announced across the country. Members of the protest movement in particular refused to vote, even though they were the ones who had demanded these early elections by holding mass protests for two years. They succeeded in forcing the government to resign and ensuring a new electoral law that now promises so much hope for a change in the party landscape.

But their main demand, that those responsible for the deaths of over 600 demonstrators be brought to justice, was not met. They are pointing a finger at the Iranian-backed Shia militias – which are among the candidates up for election. The young Iraqis in Mosul are nevertheless convinced that their generation can make a difference and that the future belongs to them, even if it is sometimes slow in coming.

The old city of Mosul (photo: Birgit Svensson)
Traces of destruction in Mosul: more than any other city in Iraq, Mosul has been the scene of terrorism, religious extremism, destruction and devastation in recent years: first by al-Qaida, then IS. While a relatively large number of voters turned up at the polls in Mosul itself, turnout in the rest of Nineveh province was poor. Yet if the Shia parties lose significant votes in the south and people vote for the independent candidates instead, Mosul would then have far more say in Baghdad

One thing is already clear: there will now be more female representatives in Baghdad. Never before have so many women stood for election. Many of them campaigned as non-partisan. A total of 936 women competed for the 329 seats in the former convention centre in Baghdad's Green Zone, built by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and subsequently converted into parliamentary headquarters after his fall in 2003. Half of the female candidates were independent.

Nour Ahmad Alkhawan is an independent candidate in Baghdad. She ran on a party ticket in the last election, in 2018. But now she is on her own. And she feels better that way. The people are fed up with political parties that have failed to drive the country forward, lining their own pockets instead, she says.

Another independent candidate, Alyaa al-Maliki, notes that women are reluctant to join parties. But they had been forced to do so in the past because of the quota.

Iraq is the only country in the Middle East, apart from Tunisia, that legally stipulates the proportion of women in popular assemblies. In Tunisia the ratio is 50 percent, and in Iraq 25 percent. While in Tunisia the quota only applies to parliament and is regulated in electoral law, in Iraq it is enshrined in the constitution and applies to all popular assemblies, including the provincial councils.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein 18 years ago, the political parties and religious groups have usually been the ones to choose the women on their tickets. This ensured that most of the women in parliament were docile and voted in line with the male majority. But now the tide has turned. If Alyaa al-Maliki wins a seat, parliament will have a defiant and aggressive new voice to contend with.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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