Corruption the main issue as Iraqis prepare to elect new parliament
Election campaign dominated by sectarian forces that emerged after US war
Men stand in line to cast their votes during a special voting day for members of the security forces on Thursday, ahead of Iraq’s parliamentaryh elections this weekend. Photograph: Ali Abbas/EPA
Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday to elect their fourth parliament since the US-led invasion and occupation 15 years ago. The election was originally scheduled in September last year but was postponed due to the military campaign against the Islamic State terror group.
More than 18 million registered voters will choose 329 representatives from among 7,000 candidates on 87 party lists grouped in nine coalitions; 237 seats are allocated to Iraq’s 18 provinces, 87 are reserved for women and nine for minorities. Since no bloc can secure a majority of seats, a coalition will be the result.
Parliament chooses the prime minister, president and vice president. Since the postwar system was introduced by the US in 2005, there have been four prime ministers, all Shias, and two presidents, both Kurds. The current vice president is a Sunni.
The campaign has been dominated by the same sectarian forces and faces that emerged after the US war. The main issues are mismanagement and corruption: $320 billion has reportedly been lost to graft over the past 15 years.
Under US-imposed sectarian democracy, voters cast ballots for Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Christian and minority candidates. Since Shias are the largest community, Shia personalities, parties and coalitions – mainly fundamentalists – dominate the scene. This time four established Shia fundamentalist blocs are competing with a new bloc formed by Iran-backed Shia militias that fought in the campaign to eradicate Islamic State, also known as Isis .
Militia bloc head Hadi al-Amiri intends to compete for the premiership – allocated to a Shia – with incumbent prime minister Haidar al-Abadi and predecessor Nuri al-Maliki.
Following a failed attempt to gain independence from Iraq last September, the Kurds, who field four parties, are weaker than any time since 2003 and are unlikely to be kingmakers again, as they have been in the past.
Vice president Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia who also seeks the premiership, has recruited leading Sunni figures into A new nationalist coalition with the aim of overthrowing the sect-based power-sharing system. They reject Iran’s prominent role in Iraqi politics and call for reintegration of Sunnis into political life and the return to their homes of 2.8 million Sunnis displaced by the war against Isis.
Designated as Sunni although secular, Allawi’s rival is a Sunni alliance headed by current vice president Usama al-Nujaifi, who advocates autonomy for Sunni provinces which have been both repressed and neglected since Shia sectarian groups became ascendant.
Allawi’s secular list won a plurality of seats in 2010 but he was prevented from forming a government by fundamentalist Shias who had been outlawed and exiled by the secular Baathist government of Saddam Hussein and returned to Iraq on the backs of US tanks. Since many Iraqis are fed up with the ethno-sectarian model, Allawi may again emerge with a significant number of seats but unable to govern.
He could join forces with the bloc headed by radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist who fought the US occupation and has formed an alliance with the communists. This unlikely pair supports Allawi’s programme.
Polls suggest Abadi, regarded as more moderate than either Maliki or Amiri, could retain the premiership, if Iran and the US agree. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement providing for dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief could, however, make agreement between the two powers extremely difficult.
Pundits predict the election could lead to instability for several reasons. Sadr questioned the legitimacy of the election and called for reforms in the electoral law while Allawi criticised the composition of the electoral commission. Both could challenge the result if their blocs are not well represented.
Islamic State and al-Qaeda are likely to step up attacks, targeting Shia civilians with the aim of fostering inter-communal tensions. Sunnis are certain to demand their rights and could use violence to protest marginalisation and repression.
Shia militia factions seek to regularise their status by forming separate units in the regular army and security forces, a demand rejected by the services.
The US withdrawal from the Iran deal has already created tension between the US and Iran in Iraq, a firm ally of Iran. Israeli attacks on Iranian positions and allies in Syria could prompt retaliation against US personnel in Iraq.