The results of the parliamentary elections in Iraq indicate that the political scene will remain fragmented, which will hamper the formation of a new government. In addition, the record low turnout (41%) and the lack of significant changes on the political scene compared to before the 2019 mass protests will weaken the legitimacy of the next government. Although the political grouping that relies most on anti-Western rhetoric achieved its best results in modern elections, Iraq will strive to maintain a neutral position in the face of U.S.-Iran rivalry.
Why were early elections called?
Iraq’s parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to take place in 2022; however, in response to the 2019 protests—the largest in Iraq’s history—the government announced early elections, in line with the demands of the demonstrators. In July last year, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (appointed after Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned in the face of the protests) announced the elections would be held in June 2021. During preparations, the government decided to postpone the elections to 10 October to enable greater transparency and inclusiveness. In response to the protesters’ demands, the government also reformed the electoral law. It increased the number of electoral districts from 18 to 83 and voters can now choose a candidate, not just a party list, which was supposed to make it easier for independent candidates to gain a seat in parliament.
Why did some politicians boycott the elections?
Despite the reforms introduced by Kadhimi’s government, parties and social movements linked to the protests insisted that the government had not complied with all the demands, including a change in the law on political parties, punishment of those responsible for the deaths of protesters (over 600 people were killed mainly by security forces and Shiite militias) and greater state control over paramilitary organisations. These groups and many young Iraqis also viewed the current form of the elections as serving only the former political elite, and in July this year they announced an official boycott of the elections, which was also joined by the Communist Party (part of the dominant Sairun coalition in parliament). The aim was to delegitimise this year’s electoral process, which, in their opinion, was unable to improve the political situation in the country.
Which parties will sit in the new parliament?
The group Sairun, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, achieved the best result. The Sadrists won 73 out of 329 parliamentary seats, 19 more than in the previous elections. The Sunni party Taqaddum, founded this year and led by Muhammad al-Halbousi, who has been the parliament speaker since 2018, gained 37 seats. A similar result (respectively 34 and 32 places) was achieved by the coalition of Shi'ite parties State of Law, led by Nuri al-Maliki, the former prime minister of Iraq (2006-2014), and the Kurdish Democratic Party led by the former president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani. In turn, the number of seats for Fatah, a party linked to the Shiite militias, dropped from 48 to 17. In 2019, the groups and independent candidates linked to the protesters won a total of around 15 seats.
What do the results mean for the future of Iraq?
The composition of the parliament is not much different from the previous one and as such, will not meet the protester’s aspirations. Al-Sadr is a populist who commands paramilitary troops (the so-called Peace Companies) and also dominated the previous parliament. Though he initially supported the protesters, the Peace Companies eventually attacked the demonstrators. This indicates that Sadr will strive to maintain the status quo. The fragmentation of parliament may delay the government’s formation. Halbousi’s party may also be trying to create the largest bloc (from which the president must appoint a prime minister). Fatah’s poor record may make it easier for the future government to increase its control over the militants. That is why the leader of the Hadi al-Amiri party and the leaders of Shiite militias called for further protests over the elections. While massive demonstrations by their supporters are unlikely, this rhetoric could lead to individual acts of violence.
How will the results affect Iraq's foreign policy?
To avoid a political vacuum, the president will most likely designate a prime minister candidate who does not have a firm position on the U.S.-Iranian rivalry. The new government will stick to the process of withdrawing U.S. combat units from Iraq (around 2,500 troops), which is due to end on 31 December. Despite Sadr’s hostile stance to any American presence in Iraq, the continued activity by ISIS cells means that training units and other Western troops in the NATO mission will remain in the country. It will be in the next government’s interest to continue Kadhimi’s neutral policy (he maintained positive relations with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as well as with Iran) and activities to strengthen multilateral cooperation in the region (such as the Baghdad summit or the trilateral cooperation with Egypt and Jordan).