In the vote in Iraq, the big blocs hide behind the “independents”

Baghdad (AFP)

When Iraqis head to the polls on Sunday, they will vote for individual candidates over parties for the first time under a new election law meant to quell a youth-led protest movement that’s tired of politics the old-fashioned way of the country.

In theory, the changes will strengthen local voices as candidates can now run at district level and as independents, enabling new prospects such as tribal leaders, businessmen and civil society activists. to join the race.

But the shadow of traditional Iraqi political blocs, which are mostly defined by a religious sect or ethnic group, still hangs over many candidates who claim to be unaligned, raising questions about the impact of the reform.

On campaign posters, many of the more than 3,200 candidates for office declare themselves free from any affiliation with powerful blocs in parliament, but not everyone is convinced.

For many, this is simply an “electoral maneuver,” argued political scientist Ihsan al-Shammari, saying they do not want to be associated with entrenched forces widely blamed for inept governance, corruption and the conclusion of shady chords behind the scenes.

“The candidates want to distance themselves from the failures of their parties and try to adopt a new image, away from corruption and mismanagement,” said Shammari of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Center for Political Thought.

Supporters of the Iraqi Fatah alliance – which held the second largest bloc in parliament – attend election rally in Baghdad AHMAD AL-RUBAYE AFP

Iraq is emerging from nearly two decades of war and insurgency since the 2003 US invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein. Sunday’s legislative elections are the fifth since then.

But there is little popular hope for major change through the ballot box, and widespread disillusionment persists within the political caste as most Iraqis worry more about a painful economic crisis.

– More constituencies –

Two years ago, popular anger erupted in unprecedented street protests against youth unemployment, the collapse of public services, and a political class seen as more loyal to Iran or the United States than Iraqi citizens.

Hundreds of people have died in the months of violence linked to the protests, and more activists have been murdered, kidnapped or intimidated since then, with no responsibility for the deaths.

The movement of the Shiite Muslim cleric Firebrand Moqtada Sadr is the favorite in the legislative elections in Iraq
The movement of the Shiite Muslim cleric Firebrand Moqtada Sadr is the favorite in the legislative elections in Iraq AHMAD AL-RUBAYE AFP

Activists blamed pro-Iran armed groups – often part of the Hached al-Chaabi paramilitary coalition that helped defeat the jihadist group Islamic State, and whose lawmakers now wield enormous influence in parliament.

The protests prompted Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi to advance the polls originally scheduled for 2022 and authorities to reform electoral rules – but many activists and parties behind the uprising are boycotting the vote.

The new electoral law theoretically favors local candidates – that is, tribal figures or local potentates – since the number of electoral districts has been increased to 83. Previously, in the list system, the Iraqi electorate was divided into 18 governorates.

Today, across the country, many candidates call themselves “independent,” despite having had partisan affiliations in the past.

Outgoing Iraqi Parliament
Outgoing Iraqi Parliament AFP

This is happening across the political spectrum – from the movement of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, to the coalition of former secular vice-president Iyad Allawi and the Alliance for the Rule of Law of former Prime Minister Nuri. al-Maliki.

One candidate, Ines Naji al-Maksousi, candidate for a post in Kut town, said: “I was an independent candidate among the Sadrists. Today, I am an independent candidate ”.

If elected, Maksousi does not ultimately rule out siding with a bloc in parliament, where 329 seats are up for grabs.

“It is possible, if there is convergence of vision with a political tendency or deputies, and if it serves our electorate,” she said.

– Hang the bait –

In Iraq, alliances tend to form and break after each election, and entire blocs can switch sides.

The counting of votes and the distribution of seats matter, but it is the haggling in forming parliamentary coalitions that is essential to forming a new government.

The favorite this time is the Sadrist movement, whose Saeroun bloc held 54 seats and was the largest in the outgoing parliament.

Many activists and parties behind unprecedented street protests two years ago boycott the vote
Many activists and parties behind unprecedented street protests two years ago boycott the vote AHMAD AL-RUBAYE AFP / File

Sadr, with millions of devoted followers among Iraqi Shiites and at the head of paramilitary groups, has long been a crucial player in Iraqi politics.

The pro-Iranian Shiite camp around the Hached al-Chaabi is also powerful. He held the second largest bloc, the Fatah alliance.

Pro-Iranian parties “are likely to retain roughly the same proportion of seats,” predicted Lahib Higel, analyst for the International Crisis Group. “I don’t see that there will be a significant increase for them.”

But amid the rules of favoritism and frequent fraud, experts do not exclude the co-option of freelancers by wielding the bait of ministerial posts and other seductions.

Shammari agreed that in Iraqi politics “the traditional forces and parties have sufficient leeway to attract independents”.

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