Iraqis vote for new electoral lists led by old candidates

Most candidates have long been in the country’s political domain despite an apparent public yearning for change.
Sunday 13/05/2018
A member of Kurdish peshmerga casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in Erbil, on May 10. (Reuters)
Challenges and hopes. A member of Kurdish peshmerga casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in Erbil, on May 10. (Reuters)

LONDON - Iraqis headed to the polls May 12 to vote in parliamentary elections in which most candidates have long been in the country’s political domain despite an apparent public yearning for change.

What is different about these elections, the fourth since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, however, is that many of the country’s dominant political parties have undergone divisions that led to new electoral lists being formed.

Dawa Party comrades Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki head separate and viciously competing Shia-dominated lists: the Victory Alliance and State of Law, respectively.

Abadi has sought to woo a cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic voter base but he and Maliki, a former prime minister, will still be competing in the same pool of Shia electorates.

A third competitor for that pool is Hadi al-Amiri, a former militia leader who heads the Conquest Alliance list, known for its affiliation to the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Amiri is not a novice to Iraqi politics. He served as minister of transportation in Maliki’s government and he is the head of the Badr Organisation, a political party but formerly was the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

The ISCI had a major breakup when its leader, Ammar al-Hakim, decided in 2017 form a new political party — the National Wisdom Movement — in a bid to appeal to younger Shia voters. The development pits former ISCI affiliates against each other in this election.

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has given his backing to the Marchers Alliance, comprised mainly of his supporters and the Iraqi Communist Party, and led by Hassan al-Aqouli, a medical doctor who has not held political office.

Sadr banned members of his al-Ahrar Bloc in parliament, who hold 40 seats, from running in this election, insisting that he will only support new faces. However, most of the future MPs of the Marchers Alliance are expected to follow the directions of Sadr, who himself has been an influential part of Iraq’s political landscape since 2003.

There are reports that Sadr may recommend the governor of Iraq’s Maysan province, Ali Dawai, who is not running in the parliamentary elections, for prime minister. Dawai is very popular in his province because of improvements in services there.

Most Sunni votes are likely to be divided between the Iraqi Decision Alliance, led by Vice-President Osama al-Nujaifi, and the National Alliance, led by Vice-President Iyad Allawi. There are also smaller Sunni-led lists competing for votes in local areas.

Nujaifi served as minister of industry and speaker of parliament and Allawi has been prime minister. Their candidacies, along with Maliki’s, mean that each of Iraq’s three vice-presidents is heading an election list.

In Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the two dominant parties remain — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is affiliated with the Barzani family, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is affiliated with the Talabani family.

The main opposition party to the KDP and PUK was the Gorran (Change) Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) but new parties have since been formed: the New Generation Movement, led by businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid; and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), led by veteran politician Barham Salih.

Both Gorran and the CDJ have split from the PUK and Salih fpreviously served as prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and as a deputy prime minister in the federal  government.

Many Kurdish voters who say they are fed up with the long-running dominance of the KRG by the KDP and PUK are pinning their hopes on Salih to improve their lives and end rampant corruption but it remains unclear how much of a change can be brought about by the CDJ leader who was part of the KRG and central government.

While many election campaigns across Iraq are promising a new era of anti-corruption, the politicians themselves are often part and parcel of the establishment that they seek to change.

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