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Ugly Realities of Iraqi Democracy: Interference, Voting Irregularities, and Misrepresentation

As Iraq wrapped up its 5th parliamentary election since the 2003 invasion, certain mainstays of the Iraqi political process reared their ugly heads once again. These factors are the presence of foreign influence and voting irregularities, and the widening gap between society’s demand for an improved quality of life, and the inability and incompetence of its political leaders to deliver on the demands of the people. Iraq is a fragile state with a nascent political system. The political establishment failed for nearly the past two decades to strengthen the state’s institutions. As a result, foreign powers tend to yield tremendous influence on Iraq’s democratic processes, including the choice of the next Prime Minister.

Irregularities also plague the Iraqi electoral system, including the buying of votes by the dominant political parties. This practice has been perfected in the past and once again took place on October 10. These factors, combined with the ineptitude of political leadership in the country, continues to delegitimize the Iraqi political system and removes any avenue for peaceful political evolution through elections or protests.

Meddling in the Selection of Iraq’s PM

Foreign interference, especially by Iran, is most pronounced when considering the selection of the Prime Minister. As Iraq quickly transitioned from dictatorship to a fragile democracy, a power vacuum emerged which allowed for influence not only by the U.S., the occupying power, but also by Iran, which nurtured many of the figures and political parties opposed to Saddam’s rule. The zero-sum game between the U.S and Iran for influence in Iraq is clearly reflected in the battle for PM each time the position is up for grabs.

For instance, in 2010, while the Al Iraqiya Coalition led by Dr. Ayad Allawi gained the most seats, Iran brokered a backroom deal to ensure the election of Nouri Al Maliki, one of its closest allies in Iraq. Tehran also ensured his continued rule two years later by convincing the Iraqi President to refuse demands for a vote of no-confidence, a measure most indicators suggested the Prime Minister would have lost. When support for Al Maliki waned after the rise of ISIS, Iran engineered his ouster. A senior member of the Iraqi Dawa party travelled to Tehran to encourage it to back Haider Al Abadi, who became the Prime Minister thereafter. Al Abadi could not continue a second term despite incessant pressure from Washington. His replacement, Adil Abdul Mahdi, was considered close to Tehran and subsequently refused to comply with U.S sanctions against Iran.

A Broken Election System and the Loss of Democratic Legitimacy

Perennial inconsistencies and alleged crimes related to the casting or counting of ballots continue to undermine the legitimacy of the Iraqi political system. For instance, in 2005 there were more than 200 complaints from all corners of the political spectrum, including allegations that dead citizens’ votes had been counted in the final tally. Similar allegations were lodged during the 2010 elections after one political coalition found “photos of ballot boxes full of uncounted voting papers.” The same occurred in 2018. Political parties began buying voters’ personal electronic identification cards to commit voter fraud.

Government efforts to regulate elections have produced little change. The Independent High Electoral Commission, whose members are chosen by partisan quota, cannot be trusted to oversee elections in an impartial fashion. Moreover, Political parties are not required to reveal the sources of their funding, allowing for dark money to infiltrate the democratic process. The UN special representative admitted that the 2018 elections had “loopholes” and undermined public trust in Iraq’s electoral process. Even in the 2021 elections, political parties continued to buy votes and coordinate with NGOs for political promotion. While the UN and the EU deployed over 150 experts to monitor the elections, their task is formidable. It is difficult, if not impossible, to monitor more than 5,500 polling stations with such limited manpower. To compound things, the UN’s monitoring mission is limited in scope and cannot step in to mitigate election-day cheating.

Finally, the continued corruption, high unemployment, and a failure to peacefully change the status quo have only served to distance society from the political elite. It is well-known that Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 160 out of 180 in 2020. Tight connections between politicians, businessmen, and militia leaders have existed for decades. Corruption has become so entrenched in the government that a member of the Iraqi parliament brazenly admitted that the entire elected body could be bought; he faced no repercussions for his comments. Tackling corruption is a key responsibility of the government, but in Iraq the same upper echelons of the government which are designed to tackle corruption have been debased. Changing this status quo from within or without the government presents an incredible challenge because the government responds not to the needs of Iraqi society, but to the interest of a narrow elite.

Iraq’s democratic crisis, combined with its impending demographic difficulties, renders a loss of government legitimacy increasingly threatening the stability of the country. Corruption, incompetent governance, and a lack of responsiveness to popular demands led to massive, widespread protests in October 2019. Iraq has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 60% of the population below 25 years of age. Youth unemployment is more than 25%. The unemployment problem is exacerbated by the fact that more labor supply enters the job market each year.  This problem is also compounded by the fact that Iraq relies heavily on oil exports— constituting 97% of the state budget—for social spending. This leaves the government beholden to its energy sector and unwilling to invest in other areas of the economy. The failure to monopolize the use of violence within its borders over an extended period makes Iraq inhospitable for foreign investment and piles pressure on local business. These dire conditions set the stage for the 2019 demonstrations. Their brutal repression, whoever, precluded any chance for peaceful political and social change.

The central tenet of democracy is the ability of the voters to change the political leaders as they see fit in the interests of the greater society. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Iraq, nor does it seem that the 2021 elections will yield any grand change to the current broken model. The most evident constant in Iraq is the slow descent of the country on multiple fronts, including education, infrastructure, and the healthcare system. Unless politicians in Baghdad comprehend the gravity of their country’s situation and take concrete steps to rectify it, Iraq’s future seems bleak.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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