May 2018 Iraq held its fifth election for parliament. All of the political parties talked about some manner of reform, many attempted to run candidates across ethno-sectarian lines, and there was a return of Iraqi nationalism, which had largely been absent since 2003. At the same time, those same parties still largely relied upon identity politics. The Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) recently released a report “Iraq Votes 2018, Election Mobilization Strategies” breaking down these different campaign strategies. This is an interview with Renad Mansour, one of the authors. Mansour is a Research Fellow at IRIS and Chatham House. He can by followed on Twitter @renadmansour.
1. There are annual protests in Iraq demanding better services, reform, the end to corruption, etc. This year they appeared to have an effect on the election. How did the parties attempt to address the demonstrators, and did you think this was a substantive response or just an attempt to co-opt public discontent?
The protest movement first emerged in the summer of 2015 in Basra, where the government failed to provide the basic services, namely electricity, to protect residents from scorching levels of heat. Quickly spreading through southern and central Iraq, the protests grew to represent citizen dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the post-2003 political system and the same elite who had governed. The fact that the demonstrations came at the peak of the Islamic State’s power is telling. Shi’i citizens demonstrated against their own Shi’i leaders, who could no longer mobilize the “us” versus “them” sectarian mentality. One of its main slogans was “the corrupt leader equals the terrorist.”
In fact, the protests demanded to bridge the gap between citizen and elite. The movement rejected the identity-based political quota system (muhassasa) that defined the politics in Iraq since the first post-Saddam election in 2005 and was continually reproduced in subsequent election and government formation processes.
In this month’s elections, to address the demonstrators’ demands, the major parties adopted the lexicon of the movement, but did not provide comprehensive platforms to address their grievances nor was there substantial debate on the issues. They all used the same buzzwords and promised to tackle corruption, to end muhassasa, and to provide services. A commonly used term was “civic” (al-madani) to represent the movement. Even conservative Shia candidates, such as the leader of Asa’b ahl al-Haq, called his party “the original civic group”. It became difficult to distinguish between conservative, liberal, Islamist, and secular, among the competing lists.
Despite the rhetoric, lists, such as Maliki’s State of Coalition or Nujaifi’s Decision Alliance, focused on the old method of evoking identity and working with established political and social networks. Other lists, such as Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance and Hadi al-Ameri’s Conquest Alliance, attempted to build cross ethno-sectarian alliances. However, they all deployed establishment candidates, including current or former ministers, members of parliament, and other officials. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Revolutionaries for Reform Alliance was the only to make an effort to enlist new faces.
Election mobilization strategies made it clear that the shift from identity to issue-based politics was merely superficial in this latest election. More critically, the gap between citizen and elite was not bridged.
2. 2018 saw a return of Iraqi nationalism amongst the Arab parties. This was largely due to the successful war against the Islamic State, and the government’s response to the Kurdish independence referendum. At the same time, parties were still relying upon identity politics. You made an interesting observation how this played out in Premier Abadi’s campaign, and how his rhetoric was in part shaped by his base within the Shiite community. Can you explain that and the interplay between trying to appeal to all of Iraq and ethnosectarianism amongst Iraq’s other lists.
Abadi’s popularity was increased, to some extent, by the victory over ISIS and the handling of the Kurdish referendum. Many were looking for a leader who could work across ethno-sectarian lines. His predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, had failed at this task and as such stoked both Sunni and Kurdish tensions.
Abadi’s trips to the Kurdistan Region and to the Sunni-majority provinces, therefore, were part of his strategy to present an Iraq-wide program. For instance, he knew he would not win many votes in the Kurdish areas, but used his rallies to tell his base that he was best placed to negotiate across lines and represent all Iraqis. This strategy would help win him more votes within the Shia community, which did not want a sectarian leader.
But ultimately, the electoral system was proven to still be driven by the post-2003 logic of identity. Under an electoral law that favored the governing class and an electoral commission far from competent or impartial, Shi’i voted for Shi’i candidates, Sunnis voted for Sunni candidates, and Kurds still voted for Kurdish candidates.
In the name of “inclusivity”, Shi’i, Sunnis, and Kurdish elite have shared power with each other for most of post-2003 Iraq, often at the expense of the Iraqi citizen. Despite Abadi’s inclusivity approach, many within the Shia based remained disillusioned, reflected in the low voter turnout. Victory over ISIS and successes in Kirkuk did not translate to higher voter turnout, because the main issue remained the gap between citizen and elite – not between Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds.
3. 2018 could have the lowest voter turnout since elections began in 2005. What is your explanation for the poor participation and what could that mean for the future government?
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, voter turnout has gradually decreased in each election (70 percent in the first election to 44.5 percent in the latest election). What hasn’t changed, for the most part, are the political lists and parties that compete. In 2018, many of the same leaders or coalitions faced a hard sell in promising systematic change. Many Iraqis were discouraged. They did not believe that the corrupt leaders were willing or able to fight corruption. More generally, there was a belief that elections and the subsequent government formation process would not yield change.
Because no party is likely to win a majority of the seats, the new government will be formed through political negotiations and power sharing agreements. The feat was that issues that concern regular citizens may take a back seat to the interests and compromises of the political elite.
But, no matter the election results, state positions and ministries are likely to remain reserved for certain political parties, revealing the power of personalities and party politics over state institutions.
Moreover, voter turnout was lower in areas where protests were more frequent. In Baghdad, for instance, the turnout was just 33 percent. Ultimately, many Iraqis have lost confidence in the electoral system and many of the politicians participating in it. They believe that change will not come from the elections, which serve to reinforce existing power sharing agreements and the interests of elite. This thought ultimately explained why many refused to vote.