Iraq’s first election since Daesh’s defeat will test the country’s divided political scene. Here’s everything you need to know about the alliances, candidates and the political environment in post-war Iraq.
Iraq has scheduled its first parliamentary elections for May 12, following Daesh’s defeat in the country in 2017. As the country slowly rebuilds itself from the destruction of war, the elections will determine if the country will be able to gain its political independence amid both high sectarian tensions and foreign involvement in the country.
With the strong Arab Sunni-Arab Shia rivalries on the one side and Kurdish parties on the other competing to consolidate power in the parliament, the political landscape, including 143 political parties, remains extremely divided.
Here’s everything you need to know about the elections: the electoral system, the process and the coalitions.
What's the pre-election climate?
The climate of war, especially the fight against Daesh, has deepened the sectarian tensions in Iraq.
The army has been severely weakened by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The new Shia Prime Minister, Nuri al Maliki, oppressed the Sunni population for years, which gave a space to Daesh to create a zone of influence in mostly Sunni-populated areas. And when Daesh came to Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi army left the city in a couple of hours without fighting.
Then Hashd al Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a Shia-dominated Iraqi armed group backed by Iran became the main tool in the fight against Daesh starting in 2014. Despite being accused of committing war crimes in Sunni-populated areas in Iraq, the group was partly-integrated to the Iraqi army in 2016.
Enjoying the huge support they got from the Shia population of the country after they mostly defeated Daesh, the commander of the PMF, Hadi al Ameri is officially running in the elections. That move raised concerns about long-term foreign involvement and sectarian tensions in post-Daesh Iraq.
Some Sunni leaders demanded the elections to be postponed to give time to 2.5 million Iraqis who were displaced during the fight against Daesh; they need to finish paperwork to be eligible to vote – a request which has been rejected.
The country’s politics is not only challenged by sectarianism, but also by intra-ethnic tensions.
Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) spearheaded a controversial and unconstitutional independence referendum on September 25, 2017, a time when Daesh was mostly defeated in the country.
KRG's Peshmerga forces were a part of the fight against Daesh on their borders, and before the referendum, they had gained control of some disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad governments, after they defeated Daesh.
In the days and weeks following the non-binding vote, which resulted in a resounding “yes,” the Iraqi central government started a military operation to retake control of the territories under de-facto KRG control since 2014.
On October 16, the Iraqi army took over Kirkuk, which has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Kirkuk is widely seen as KRG’s symbol of independent Kurdish state aspirations as it has the biggest oil resources.
KRG’s loss of Kirkuk meant more strained relations with the central government in Baghdad and less representation of their members in the parliament in Baghdad. But that’s not the only challenge that KRG is facing.
There are two major parties inside the KRG: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Even though they both have similar policies on an autonomous Kurdish government, there is an ongoing power struggle as they differ on other issues.
PUK has its own peshmerga forces that dominate in Kirkuk and the Sulaymaniyah in the south of KRG region while KDP's peshmerga forces control Erbil, Duhok and north Mosul.
Their historical power also is challenged by recently created political parties such as the Goran Party – which split from PUK – the Komal Party and the Justice and Democracy Party.
How does the system work?
Iraq’s Council of Representatives has 329 seats, distributed over Iraq’s 18 governorates with 9 compensatory seats reserved for the country’s minorities. More than 16,000 candidates are likely to participate in the elections. According to Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), 205 political parties were registered as of January, but it’s unlikely for a single party to have enough votes to have seats in the parliament alone. That’s why 143 of the parties have set up 54 alliances or lists to increase their chances. According to the Iraqi constitution, the electoral term of the parliament is four calendar years.
The registered number of alliances are 54, but only 27 electoral alliances have been approved to run in the elections. There are five major Shia alliances, a major Sunni and one secular one run by a Shia leader, and a major Kurdish alliance, along with individually running Kurdish parties.
In 2014, it took months to form a government and won't be easy in this election either. Even though Abadi would take all the 50 seats saved for his alliance, he will still need more than 100 seats to form a government.
Major Shia alliances:
Running their electoral campaign through the rhetoric of defeating Daesh, Shia parties have approximately 500 candidates, and the country’s next prime minister will be one of them.
- "Victory of Iraq" (Nasr al Iraq): Iraq’s current Prime Minister Haider al Abadi will run for re-election as the head of the alliance. According to the polls, it is likely to get the highest number of votes compared to other alliances.
- "State of Law" (Dawlat al Qanun): The leader of this coalition is the former prime minister Nouri al Maliki, who is running against Abadi. He was accused of pursuing sectarian policies that created an environment for the rise of Daesh. Both Maliki and Abadi were part of Al Dawa Party, which split later.
- "Conquest" (Al Fatah): Alliance is led by Hadi al Ameri, the commander of the biggest group in Hashd al Shaabi, Badr Group. Turning into a political party after the defeat of Daesh, Badr Party's leader Amiri can run in the elections, since the constitution bans paramilitary groups from political participation. The name of the coalition refers to the victory over Daesh by Hashd al Shaabi.
- "Wisdom" (Al Hikma): An alliance which was created after the rule of Saddam Hussein sent the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) to exile, when the party eventually split.
- Revolution for Reform (Al Sairun): A group created by the followers of Muqtada al Sadr and the Iraqi Communist Party, "The Marchers." Sadr is a religious leader who was sent to exile under Baath rule, and now they have the biggest number of seats in the parliament as a sole group.
- National Coalition (Al Wataniya): A secular coalition of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, former deputy prime minister Saleh Mutlaq, and Salim al Jabouri, current speaker of the parliament. Although being Sunni dominated, the alliance is welcoming Shia members and defends non-sectarianism. Allawi himself is a Shia who used to be a Baathist in exile, opposing Saddam Hussein's ideas. He had talks with the CIA during the late period of Saddam regime to create an opposition list for a regime change. After the US invasion in 2003, he became the first prime minister for the interim government established in 2004.
Major Sunni alliance:
- Al Qarar al Iraqi: The list is led by one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, Osama al Nujaifi. Coming from a prominent Sunni family of Mosul, his brother Atheel al Nujaifi served as the governor of Ninevah, until he was removed from his post by the Shia majority parliament in 2015. Some members of United Alliance and the Arab project also joined the list.
- Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK): The two historically powerful parties of the KRG have been challenged by the new parties, founded by the senior officials split from both parties. Their leaders changed since the last elections: KDP's Massoud Barzani quit after the failed independence referendum and PUK's Jalal Talabani died in 2017. KDP is still powerful in Erbil, and PUK maintains its power in Sulaymaniyah.
- Homeland (Nishtiman): Alliance of Gorran Movement – which split from the PUK and got more votes in the last KRG elections and has its headquarters in Sulaymaniyah – and Komal, which is backed by Iran and the Justice and Democracy Party.