Iraqi Sunnis face greater election challenges than ISIS threat

The message by ISIS appears to be a bid to dissuade Sunni voters from taking part in the elections.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Staked up issues. A member of Iraq’s electoral commission arranges boxes ahead of the parliamentary elections at a warehouse in Najaf, on April 19. (AFP)
Staked up issues. A member of Iraq’s electoral commission arranges boxes ahead of the parliamentary elections at a warehouse in Najaf, on April 19. (AFP)

The threat by the Islamic State (ISIS) to attack Iraqi polling stations and voters during parliamentary elections is unlikely to seriously affect voter turnout or results of the polls. The country’s electoral process faces greater challenges.

The message by ISIS appears to be a bid to dissuade Sunni voters in particular from taking part in the elections.

“Oh Sunnis… we know that the government of Rafida (a pejorative Arabic term for Shias) is on the verge of what they call elections,” ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir posted on the Telegram messaging app.

“Our judgment will apply to those who call for them and participate in them… The voting centres and those in them are targets for our swords, so stay away from them and do not walk nearby,” he added.

Iraqi politicians, the electoral commission and security officials dismissed the threat, promising to protect polling stations and foil ISIS attacks.

“We have pre-emptive operations by our units, including searches, raids and arrests, and the destruction of the remaining ISIS cells,” Iraqi Brigadier-General Yehya Rasoul said in a statement. “We are dealing with a terrorist enemy and we assure the Iraqi people that the Iraqi forces are exerting great effort and will secure the polling stations completely.”

There are nearly 7,000 candidates competing for 329 parliament seats in the May 12 elections. More than 24 million people are eligible to vote.

Iraqi Sunni split

The ISIS threat is not a new development; all of the militant group’s predecessors have threatened and attacked Iraqi voters since 2005. Their threats had little effect on the participation of Shia and Kurdish voters but Sunnis have always been split on whether to take part in the polls.

Sunnis who have boycotted the polls argue that the electoral process is skewed to their community’s disadvantage and that they would never get a fair representation while corrupt Shia or Kurdish officials oversee the elections. They add that, by taking part, voters would be giving credibility to a corrupt system and a boycott undermines the legitimacy of the outcome.

Other Sunnis argue that, without political participation, their community would not have a voice — no matter how small — in parliament and would be further marginalised. This camp seems to be gaining traction after the defeat of ISIS in December.

Previous anti-government insurgencies that enjoyed support from Iraq’s Sunnis did not actually govern their host communities. That changed when ISIS declared its “caliphate” from Mosul in 2014, unveiling an unimaginable reign of horror.

Who to vote for?

In addition, many Sunnis see Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as a non-sectarian Shia leader, who stands in stark contrast to his predecessors since 2003. They may doubt his ability to make real changes in Iraq but not necessarily his intentions.

Still, a Sunni trust in Abadi does not automatically translate into votes. Most of the Sunnis who won’t be boycotting the elections will likely vote for Sunni-dominated lists, which may form electoral alliances with Abadi after the results come out.

This, however, will only mean that more Sunnis will face the dilemma that their counterparts in the Shia and Kurdish communities, who are increasingly disillusioned with the country’s biggest parties, are already facing: Whom to vote for?

Many Sunni politicians who became part of the post-2003 Iraqi establishment were accused of seeking to further their personal interests instead of serving their community or county.

Internally displaced Sunnis

There is an additional problem faced by the Sunni electorate: the questions they are likely going to be asking are not just “Should we vote at all?” or “Whom to vote for?” but also “Can we vote even if we choose to?”

There are concerns that not all of those who were displaced by the war on ISIS — an estimated 2.3 million Iraqis — would be able to cast ballots despite government assurances.

“The commission has a special concern for this issue,” Riyadh al-Badran, the chief electoral officer of the Independent High Electoral Commission, told Reuters. Badran said that displaced Iraqis who don’t have the new electronic identification cards — introduced to counter voter fraud that took place in previous elections — will be offered alternative options to prove their identities.

Will all the predominately Sunni displaced voters be able to vote and do so freely? Will more of those who boycotted previous elections take part in May’s polling? Will the elections be less marred in fraud and corruption? These issues affect Iraqi elections more than any ISIS threat.