Upcoming Parliamentary Elections: A Turning Point In Iraq’s Long Road To Peace And Democracy, Or More Of The Same?

Iraq is set to hold its parliamentary elections next month, for the first time since declaring victory over ISIS in December 2017. Iraqis will head to the polls on 12 May 2018 to choose their next President and Prime Minister, the outcome of which will pose serious implications for the nation during this transformational period. Initially scheduled to be held in September 2017, the elections were postponed due to the civil conflict with ISIS, as a large portion of the population had been displaced by the violence and are only now able to return to their homes.

Iraq has experienced an arduous journey towards achieving a fair and effective democracy – a challenge that it is yet to overcome, as these elections hold its own set of obstacles. This is the fourth time Iraqis will be voting in parliamentary elections since the former President Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US-led international coalition during ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ in 2003. In power from 1979-2003, Hussein’s tyrannical rule had been marked by countless human rights violations against his own people. He was ultimately trialled by the Iraqi Interim Government, and hanged on 30 December 2007 for crimes against humanity.

Iraq is at a political crossroads, and the international community is sure to be looking on as the election day nears. This election could be a potential turning point for a country that has historically experienced much violence and political instability. More than two million Iraqis are now making the journey home, and there is a growing sense of hope that enduring peace and prosperity is within reach for Iraq. However, there are concerns that foreign interference, problematic institutions, and an unstable economy will continue to plague Iraq’s political scene.

When asked about the upcoming elections, many Iraqis expressed their frustration with the system and feel disenfranchised by the democratic process. One Baghdad resident, Ali al-Khafaji, asserted that, “I swear, nothing will change. I am telling you, it’s a garbage recycle facility. Just like in 2006, 2010, 2014, it will be the same faces in 2018 also. The same parties that have destroyed Iraq.” Perceived corruption and security concerns are what seem to top the list of issues plaguing voters.

This is not the first-time Iraq has been in this position, as the current state of affairs echoes another pivotal moment in Iraq’s history: the defeat of Al-Qaeda in 2010. During this tumultuous period, the Obama administration decided to pursue a political strategy to maintain the status quo by backing the then-serving Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. al-Maliki was considered to be pro-American, thus allowing the US at the time to be able to maintain a degree of influence over Iraq’s political scene. In reality, however, this decision proved to be a disastrous miscalculation that led to further conflict in the country. By that time, Iran wielded its influence, and was able to convince key Shia leaders in Tehran to throw their support behind a second Maliki term, with the provision that the US withdraw its forces from the region. What followed was the hardening of sectarianism, as the Shia-dominated ruling establishment pursued policies that alienated Sunni and Kurdish populations. These dynamics allowed ISIS to emerge as a defender of Iraqi Sunnis against the Shia-led Maliki administration. It is of utmost importance that similar mistakes are not repeated, if the establishment of a government that is committed to reform is to be ensured.

The political landscape in Iraq is extremely divided, and many have claimed that the most effective government will be one that is made up of a coalition that is comprised of moderate Shia groups in alliance with Sunni and Kurdish parties. Cross-sectarian unions would, in theory, provide more checks and balances, and, as a result, ultimately develop a more stable government. There continues to be concern regarding Iranian interference in the upcoming elections, as a hallmark of an effective democracy is the ability to hold free and fair elections. In addition, Baghdad is currently facing a major challenge in re-settling the two million citizens who had been displaced during the civil conflict. Many have been forced out of displacement camps and told to return home. Yet, there are areas still littered with cluster munitions, landmines, and booby traps. Moreover, there are serious concerns over the sewage and electricity systems in several regions, and many schools and hospitals have yet to reopen across the country.

It is clear that there is still a long way to go in rebuilding Iraq and developing a successful government. In spite of this, there is an undeniable feeling of hope surrounding these next elections. The fight against ISIS had, in many ways, brought together an extremely fragmented Iraq under a common goal. Now that the group has been defeated, it is important that the country’s political parties focus on issue-based politics, and not identity based-politics, if any real progress is to be made towards lasting peace in Iraq.