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Iraqi Politics - 12 May 2018 Elections

In advance of the general elections scheduled for 12 May 2018, Prime Minister Abadi announced in January that he would lead a cross-sectarian list. Many influential Iraqi politicians have also tried to distance themselves from sectarian rhetoric in the run-up to the vote. Prominent Iraqi politicians, from the prime minister to influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to even Ammar al-Hakim, are seeking to present themselves as nationalist figures to appeal to cross-sectarian electorates in the upcoming elections. The Abadi-led electoral alliance expected to win enough seats for the current prime minister to continue leading the government.

Iraqi leaders insist the country is in the best state it's been in since the invasion, even if ordinary Iraqis remain sceptical. Iraqi leaders point to the military defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and national elections scheduled for May as reasons to be hopeful. Elections running smoothly, leaders say, will indicate there was at least one positive legacy to the US invasion - the successful introduction of democracy. With dead relatives, lost opportunities and a feeling of insecurity, many Iraqis remain less interested in elections and democracy than taking care of their loved ones.

Violence continued throughout 2017, largely fueled by the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Government forces successfully fought to liberate territory taken earlier by ISIS, including Mosul, while ISIS sought to demonstrate its viability through targeted attacks. Armed clashes between ISIS and government forces caused civilian deaths and hardship. By year’s end Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) had liberated all territory from ISIS, drastically reducing ISIS’s ability to commit abuses and atrocities.

The most significant human rights issues included allegations of unlawful killings by some members of the ISF, particularly some elements of the PMF; disappearance and extortion by PMF elements; torture; harsh and life-threatening conditions in detention and prison facilities; arbitrary arrest and detention; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel and other limits on freedom of expression, including press freedoms; violence against journalists; widespread official corruption; greatly reduced penalties for so-called “honor killings”; coerced or forced abortions imposed by ISIS on its victims; legal restrictions on freedom of movement of women; and trafficking in persons. Militant groups killed LGBTI persons. There were also limitations on worker rights, including restrictions on formation of independent unions.

Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, and interference with internet service. Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal.

An active media expressed a variety of views largely reflecting the owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by militias, criminal organizations, and private individuals, including political figures. Media outlets, unable to cover operating costs through advertising revenue, frequently relied upon political funding that diminished their ability to report unbiased news. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print media publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.

In large part the government respected the right of its citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly. For example, on 24 March 2017, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr addressed an estimated 50,000 followers in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand anticorruption reforms; the protest remained peaceful, and the estimated 2,000 riot police deployed for the occasion did not interfere with the assembly.

Political parties and coalition blocs tended to organize along either religious or ethnic lines, although some parties indicated interest in crossing sectarian lines during the year. Membership in some political parties conferred special privileges and advantages in employment and education.

If the country cannot be united and all residents treated as equal citizens, then radical jihadist ideology could become popular once more. The upcoming parliamentary elections in May are also intended to defuse this threat. With Iraq's political landscape in disarray and the elections in just four months' time, the future did not look promising. The country's party system was highly fragmented. And Iraq's three major political camps – Shiites, Sunnites and Kurds – each splintered into factions that had little in common.

The Shiites were the most fragmented. They comprise over 70 different parties and factions, which in turn break down into several blocs and sub-factions. The largest of them was the Dawa party. It united major political forces that also happened to compete against one another. Its most significant group was led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and in recent months garnered much respect for its role in fighting and helping defeat IS - referred to as the "coalition of victory." A number of the Shiite groups that emerged in the fight against IS morphed into political parties once the extremists were defeated and are now running in the elections.

The second sizable Shiite bloc is the National Wisdom Movement which had not succeeded in established itself as a political force in its own right. It did, however, deliberately distance itself from former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's staunchly pro-Shiite course. Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement was the third significant Shiite group. It was opposed to existing political alliances and instead strives for a "technocratic" coalition across the entire political spectrum. This, they think, would help overcome the ethnic and religious divisions that emerged in the country since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Iraq's Sunni, too, are divided. The military defeat of radical-Sunni IS precipitated the fragmentation of this political camp into numerous sub-groups and factions. In the run-up to the election, there were more than 50. The Iraqi National Movement, under leadership of former Deputy Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, was the strongest of them. It, in turn, was comprised of 30 factions. They emerged out of moderate Sunni militias who had joined the fight against IS. Together they were running in the general elections.

Sunni parties faced the dilemma that their electoral base had shrunk drastically. Many Sunnis fled from western Iraq, either to escape IS or the government's anti-IS campaign. Some Sunni politicians demanded the elections be postponed until these residents have returned to their homes in western Iraq.

Iraq's Kurds are more united than the country's Shiites and Sunnites. They have 60 MPs and control several ministries. However, the movement has lost some of its legitimacy after 92 percent of those eligible voted to make Iraqi Kurdistan fully autonomous in a referendum in September 2017. The decision by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to retire from political life, and the death of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who had a Kurdish background too, has weakened the Kurds. So far the camp has been unable to regain its former power. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are the strongest groups in the Kurdish camp, yet they have little in common. So it is unlikely they will form an alliance.

The communists also participate in the elections. They've joined forces with other secular groups, but observers doubted they would receive many votes.

These are the fourth elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Many describe these elections as distorted democracy due to the influence of religious powers, foreign interference and political corruption. However, they are still relatively better than other Arab democracies. Although many predicted the fall of the parliamentary political system after the US, which engineered this system, withdraws from the country, these are the second elections to be held after the exit of its troops.

To win the premiership, a candidate needs to win the majority of the votes, i.e. the votes of 165 MPs out of 329. Since it is a multi-party system, it is almost impossible to win these votes without sealing political alliances. The governorate of Baghdad is the most important one because it is the largest with 69 seats.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi resigned 08 September 2018 when his alliance with a populist cleric who won the May elections crumbled by tremendous unrest shaking the south of the country. Parliament had called on Abadi to resign after lawmakers held an emergency meeting on public rage seething in the southern city of Basra. The second list in parliament, the Conquest Alliance, condemned "the government's inability to solve the crisis in Basra", where 12 demonstrators were killed this week in clashes with the forces safety. The Conquest Alliance of former pro-Iranian paramilitary fighters was "on the same wavelength" on Sadr's Marching Towards Reform list and worked together to form a new government.

Iraq's parliament on 02 October 2018 elected a new president despite a bitter dispute between the two main Kurdish parties, who for the first time put forward competing candidates. In Iraq, a Kurd holds the presidency — which is a largely ceremonial role — while the prime minister post is reserved for a Shiite and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. The KDP's candidate was Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of former Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. If Hussein had been elected, Barzani would have likely acted as the shadow president of Iraq.

Baghdad's parliament voted for Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) candidate Barham Salih, who previously served as the prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan region and deputy prime minister of Iraq. Salih is considered a moderate, non-sectarian reformer with good ties with the West and neighboring Iran and Turkey. Significantly for Iraqi politics, the PUK has traditionally had a good working relationship with Baghdad compared to the KDP. The recently deceased PUK founder Jalal Talabani had served as president for eight years and was succeeded by Fuad Masum, also of the PUK.

Newly elected Iraqi President Barham Salih named independent Shia candidate Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister-designate, ending months of deadlock after an inconclusive national election in May. A former vice president, oil minister and finance minister, Abdul Mahdi had 30 days to form a cabinet and present it to parliament for approval. He faces the daunting tasks of rebuilding much of the country after four years of war with the armed group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), healing its ethnic and sectarian tensions, and balancing foreign relations with Iraq's two major allies - Iran and its rival, the US.

Abdul Mahdi was nominated by two rival blocs, one led by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the other by pro-Iranian political bloc leader Hadi al-Amiri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both blocs claimed to hold a parliamentary majority but the dispute has been rendered irrelevant by their choice of the same man to be prime minister.

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Page last modified: 03-10-2018 13:09:09 ZULU