With a little confidence in the country's political system, many ordinary Iraqis are likely to stay away from the ballot box while Shia-led parties like Muqtada al Sadr’s group are expected to dominate next month’s polls.

The walls of Baghdad are covered with posters of Iraq’s former leaders, especially Nouri al Maliki and Haidar al Abadi, as the country moves toward its early elections on October 10. Both men however were forced out of power for their incompetence, and yet they are leading in the country’s two powerful Shia blocks.  

But Iraq’s Sunni minority’s leaders from current parliament speaker Mohammed Rikan Hadeed al Halbousi to Khamis al Khanjar, a millionaire and a powerful leader of a Sunni bloc, have not changed much either. In the northern part of the country, the most powerful figure has long been Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), indicating another unchanged nature of Iraqi leadership. 

“Because they have so many financial sources, you can see their posters everywhere across Iraq. They have been in power for a long time. They are also people who have not contributed much to change the country’s politics in a positive manner, instead, they were criticised for their responsibilities for Iraq’s failing political system,” says Haydar Karaalp, a Baghdad-based political analyst. 

As a result, the only measure of whether anything can change in Iraqi politics or not depends on the voter turnout, which could give independents more seats in the parliament, according to Karaalp. 

Despite the US or Iran-backed establishment groups’ holding onto power, popular protests, which have hit the country since last year, have blown winds of change, helping some pro-reformist independent groups emerge from nowhere. While some are boycotting elections, others are competing to defeat the established groups despite having little financial power. 

“If a real election happens, half of the current parliament can not be reelected. People are tired of them,” says Sabahattin Salihi, the president of Kirkuk Chamber of Commerce. Kirkuk is Iraq’s disputed oil-rich city with a diverse population of Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds. 

“Large protests were the open manifestations of people’s anger toward the establishment,” Salihi tells TRT World. He also criticises the government’s division of Kirkuk into three different election districts, where diverse populations are not represented in a fair sense.  

Despite protests and the independent newcomers of Iraqi politics, “a radical change appears to be something difficult to be achieved with this election cycle. In order to fundamentally change the Iraqi political system formed in 2013, the country needs more time and more election cycles, which should be conducted in a transparent manner,” Karaalp tells TRT World. 

Awatef Rasheed, an Iraqi women's rights activist running as an independent candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, speaks with her supporters in Basra, Iraq September 14, 2021.
Awatef Rasheed, an Iraqi women's rights activist running as an independent candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, speaks with her supporters in Basra, Iraq September 14, 2021. (Mohammed Aty / Reuters)

A lot of people express their unwillingness to go to the polls and cast their votes for parties and political blocks, who have led the country more or less in the last ten years without bringing any stability and prosperity, according to the analyst. 

Is Muqtada al Sadr a kingmaker? 

There are signs that there will be a fierce competition among the Shiite-led political groups from the country’s erratic Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s the Sadrist Bloc to Conquest Alliance led by Hadi al Ameri, the leader of Badr Brigade, which is dominated by Iraq’s powerful Shia militia Hashd al Shaabi. 

There are also two other powerful Shia groups: the State of Law Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Maliki and the Alliance of National State Forces, which is co-led by former Prime Minister Abadi and Sayyed Ammar al Hakim, a prominent Shiite leader. 

After being an avowed enemy of the US, Sadr, the son of one of the country’s most powerful Shia clerics, has repositioned himself as someone who is now the enemy of Tehran. Sadr’s group is the biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament and the hot-headed cleric hopes to grab even more seats from the upcoming election, which will allow his bloc to nominate the country’s prime minister. 

Interestingly, two months prior to the election, Sadr announced that his group would boycott the elections, but just like the way he has flip flopped on his previous political positions, he changed his boycott decision too. He eventually announced that the Sadrist bloc would contest the polls.

“Without his participation, the elections would probably be delayed,” Kayaalp notes, indicating Sadr’s kingmaker role in Iraqi politics. “After Sadr revised his decision to participate in the elections, candidates began hanging their posters on the walls of Baghdad.”  

The main competition is going to be between anti-Iran Sadr and pro-Tehran Shia political groups like Ameri’s Badr Brigade and Maliki’s bloc, according to analysts. “While Maliki himself is not a candidate, his posters are all over the place, giving anyone an impression as if he’s a candidate,” Kayaalp views. 

Muqtada al Sadr's rising star can make him a kingmaker of the country's politics after the elections scheduled on October 10, 2021.
Muqtada al Sadr's rising star can make him a kingmaker of the country's politics after the elections scheduled on October 10, 2021. (Khalid Mohammed / AP Archive)

As for the Kurds in the north, the KDP is expected to win more seats as the party’s main Kurdish opponent, late Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has recently gone through a family feud between two cousins, further undermining the party’s political base in northern Iraq. 

Bekir Aydogan, an Erbil-based journalist focusing on Iraq’s Kurdish region, observes not much excitement across the northern part of the country. “It appears that Iraqi Kurds do not give much importance to the elections because it does not have any direct effect on the composition of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its political balances,” Aydogan tells TRT World

Foreign influence

Some experts have thought that the elections will eventually empower the country’s suffering largely poor population. But even popular protests have appeared to make a few inroads in the political system under strong foreign influence - whether be the US or the Shia-majority Iran - much to the dismay of protesters. 

Like Afghanistan, Iraq has also gone through decades of foreign intervention, civil unrest and a Daesh insurgency, which was almost going to topple the country’s Shia-dominated political system in 2015. But unlike Afghanistan, the US is still in Iraq, having a huge influence over the country’s politics since the 2003 invasion. 

The Taliban's swift victory after a lightning campaign against the Afghan central government has also made a lot of Iraqi politicians - whose credentials appear to lay more with foreign powers like the US and Iran than with ordinary people - nervous about their own future careers as well as the divided country’s prospects to stay united.

Until now, even designating the prime minister has been determined according to the final outcomes of negotiations between the US and Iran. Current Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi also came to power following a US-Iran consensus on him, according to some.

“This competition between the two powers will definitely affect election results, particularly regarding the designation of who will be the prime minister,” Kayaalp says. But Kadhimi’s shuttle diplomacy has helped soften this competition, he adds. 

Kadhimi’s role

Kadhimi is not a candidate for any bloc in the elections and he does not lead or support any political groups, signalling he seeks to keep his position as a consensus leader after the polls, Kayaalp says. 

During his governance, Kadhimi has appeared to balance the Iranian influence by relying upon Sadr. “Everybody knows that he is the man who fervently wants to have a second term,” says the Baghdad-based analyst. 

While Iraq’s turbulent politics can’t guarantee anything for granted, Kadhimi might have a second term thanks to his successful consensus-building measures across the board from reaching Gulf countries to Iranians and other regional powers. He has also been on good terms with Washington. 

While pro-Hashd al Shaabi groups don't like Kadhimi, he has even garnered the support of Marja, the Najaf-based Shiite religious authority represented by the country’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, according to Kayaalp. 

“I believe he has been the first prime minister who can gather all of these support from different power centers since the US invasion of 2003,” Kayaalp concludes.   

Source: TRT World