The rocky road to Iraq’s 2018 elections
The chorus of voices broadcasting predictions ahead of Iraq’s 2018 elections has grown louder among post-war governance stakeholders. Spirits appear deceptively high after the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul but nothing ought to distract onlookers from potential electioneering outcomes.
The defeat of ISIS, though widely lauded, does not mirror the silence surrounding the infiltration of terrorist groups in Anbar province, which threatens to wash away the victories of the past month.
In these turbulent political times, the attempt to have elections will be anything but normal. Calming reassurances offered by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi have done little to ease public anxiety over expected in-fighting between militia elements from Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and the resident parties of the ruling Shia alliance.
Having assumed the lead in ISIS’s eviction from north-western territories, PMF factions assumed new political leverage and economic sway that the United States and its friends in the Iraqi government are desperate to keep in check. Radical militia elements, if predictions hold, may seize their long-awaited moment by remoulding themselves into an electoral entity to stand in next year’s vote.
In July, the most potent of those units — Iraq’s Iran-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) commanded by Qais al-Khazali — was awarded a licence authorising its participation as a political party vetted by the Independent High Electoral Commission.
This is another constitutional violation in a long line of issues slammed by legal experts.
Fearful of the electoral clout PMF newcomers pose, the United States is again shopping for secular players from inside the political system it gave life to 14 years ago. It believes the fracture can be nursed by uniting the secular and Shia camps. Attempts to appeal to alienated Sunni constituencies have been few and far between. The Sadrists, however, are likely to emerge as the largest bloc.
In stepping up as the patron of secular names, Washington aims to create a coalition staffed by old faces, including recycled Sunni businessmen as part of Khamis al Khanjar’s “Arab Project” and religious groups whose insatiable appetite for corruption has left them incapable of producing legitimate rulers. Unification must happen before any power-sharing agreement can be reached between these sides.
America is not the only foreign power jostling for the lead.
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, chairman of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, returned to Baghdad on Tehran’s instructions to ensure its Shia patrons remain front-running actors, particularly in Iraq’s oil-rich south. Shahroudi met with Abadi, Khazali and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Shia luminaries in Najaf refused to meet Iran’s representative but it suffices to say that Tehran is not short of dedicated characters from Iraq’s pro-Iran camp it can lean on.
Nonetheless, the PMF’s involvement will neither alleviate fears of electoral violence nor encourage voter turnout. Most feared is the numerical advantage enjoyed by the 100,000-strong militia confederation and ways this may be exploited to engineer results.
The weakening of a centralised army and moves by some PMF groupings to unshackle themselves from state control also sets off alarms. The question of whether the army is equipped to halt violent practices ahead of the vote lacks definitive answers.
Another unaddressed question is that of voter turnout or “absent voters,” as Arab Lawyers Association President Sabah al-Mukhtar explained. “Surely the non-participation of an estimated 4 million internally displaced persons, is a non-starter,” he said.
“Warfare has obliterated seven of Iraq’s major cities, whose populations are living in informal tented settlements. There is no census, no identity cards and little hope for the dispossessed,” Mukhtar said.
Assuming elections include these areas, whether potential terrorist attacks will be mitigated by local authorities is yet to be seen. “Nowhere else in the world other than Iraq could we expect elections under the given circumstances,” Mukhtar said.
“I don’t think the elections will be held nationwide. Perhaps in the capital, the south but not elsewhere. It’s nonsensical.”
Absent voters are not the only logistical obstacle facing the government. Another is the electoral procedure. The postponement of last year’s provincial elections means that local and parliamentary elections will be consolidated into one, opening a clear road for militias to march down.
Others say the delay serves Abadi’s plan for a quiet exit from politics.
“Abadi’s insistence on the neutral character of Al-Hashed al-Shabbi spells disillusionment and the state’s inability to stand in their way,” said Ahmad al-Mahmoud, a senior researcher at the London-based Iraqi opposition group Foreign Relations Bureau — Iraq (FRBI). Al-Hashed al-Shabbi is the PMF’s Arabic name.
If victory cannot be assigned to any one party, an emergency government headed by the incumbent prime minister may be formed, “keeping America’s preferred ruler seated,” Mahmoud added.
Though many are celebrating Iraq’s recovery from terrorism, these misguided premonitions fail to acknowledge the residual war Iraq remains struck by. If anything is clear, it is that Iraq is deep in the mud and that its upcoming parliamentary race is likely to be anything but cordial.