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In Iraq, a ‘post-sectarian’ election, yet challenges to democracy linger

shift in thought

Candidates in Iraq's elections Saturday, aware of the perils of sectarianism, are focusing on bread-and-butter issues. But that doesn't mean they've earned voters' trust. There are still lessons to be learned about democracy: Voting drives legitimacy, and corruption undermines trust.

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Iraqi politician Hanan al-Fatlawi is heading her own list of candidates in parliamentary elections set for May 12. "There must be new parties in order to build the trust between the people and politicians again," she says.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

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Their car stuck in sweltering Baghdad traffic, the Iraqi men spotted a foreign news photographer on the sidewalk taking pictures of a wall of campaign posters.

“They’re all thieves!” shouted one of the men, about the candidates in Iraq’s May 12 elections. “We won’t vote!”

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When polls open Saturday morning, Iraqis will be choosing from some 7,000 candidates for 329 seats in parliament. It’s the first nationwide election since the declaration last year that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been defeated after a devastating three-year war.

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This election season, some characteristics of Iraqi politics are new, such as a shift away from divisive, overt sectarian campaign rhetoric – among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds alike – that has dominated public political discourse since US forces invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. Taking its place are more bread-and-butter issues, such as local services and combating corruption.

But while candidates search for a post-sectarian blend of campaign promises that will convince Iraqis disgruntled with politics to give them their votes, Iraq’s veteran politicians face widespread disillusionment over whether they can be agents for change.

Most have learned that sectarian politics are dangerous, analysts say, and were a key ingredient in the rise of the extremist Sunni ISIS and in its support for a time by many among Iraq’s largely disenfranchised Sunni minority, who ruled Iraq for decades until 2003.

Since the ISIS defeat, quality of life and security have improved markedly in Baghdad and beyond. But many Iraqis, especially first-time would-be voters, say politics have not yet changed enough to earn their engagement, highlighting two key lessons for Iraqi voters and politicians about strengthening democracy: Voter participation drives legitimacy, and corruption undermines trust.

“There is a failure for more than 15 years, and people now are unhappy and desperate from [past results], so there must be new parties in order to build the trust between the people and politicians again,” says Hanan al-Fatlawi, a physician and vocal lawmaker who is contesting this vote as head of her own list of 200-plus candidates in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Little trust in parties, parliament

Dr. Fatlawi reckons that half of Iraq’s 18.2 million eligible voters may not participate. A late-March survey of 1,066 Iraqis conducted for the 1,001 Iraqi Thoughts organization found that more than 70 percent planned to vote – a figure that would be slightly higher than the 65 percent average in previous elections.

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But the same poll found that only 6 percent of Iraqis had trust in political parties – the lowest for any institution in Iraq – and that parliament fared only slightly better, with 8 percent of those polled voicing trust in it.

“[Iraqis] say, ‘For what we are going to vote? There will be no change. All are the same, all are corrupt, most of them are losers, and we don’t want to make the same mistake every four years,’ ” says Fatlawi.

Speaking in English and wearing a maroon headscarf, Fatlawi is no stranger to controversy and is seen by some as an example of the evolution in Iraqi politics.

She is well known and popular for her pointed questioning of ministers in parliament – including demanding from Iraq’s defense chief in 2016 that he publicly disclose secret deals with “mafias” that illegally flew weapons to ISIS. Footage during a fracas in parliament that same year shows her apparently throwing water bottles at Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

And Fatlawi has been accused of sectarianism – a charge she flatly denies – after a portion of a television interview in April 2014, before ISIS invaded, appeared to show her suggesting that if seven Shiites were killed, then seven Sunnis should also be killed. She says her comments were misinterpreted, and that her point was that more Shiites than Sunnis were sacrificing their lives – as members of the Shiite-dominated armed forces at the time – in the fight against militants in Sunni areas, and that the sacrifice should be balanced among sects.

“We need new people, thinking in a different way,” says the lawmaker.

Election posters line the streets in Baghdad, April 17, 2018, for parliamentary elections May 12, what is billed by candidates as Iraq's first post-sectarian vote.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

To avoid the taint of previous political failures impeding new achievements, Fatlawi says the party she created in 2015, called Eraada, or Determination, has insisted on presenting candidates for Saturday’s vote with new faces who have never held executive political posts.

Like many Iraqi slates of candidates, Eraada includes contenders from across Iraq’s sectarian divides.

“Now the war is finished, and the oil price is rising,” says Fatlawi. “The situation is now better so there must be a new way of dealing with issues, a new policy and new ideas and new strategy.”

“Nowadays,” she adds, “sectarian language really is not accepted by many of the people – I’m not saying all of the people – in all provinces. They are refusing to hear sectarian language.”

Same old faces

One Iraqi analyst close to the government, explaining the focus on services and nationalist themes in the campaign, says Saturday’s vote “could be the first post-sectarian elections.”

“People don’t have the appetite for it,” he says. “People are absolutely fed up with, ‘this guy is Sunni, this guy is Shiite.’ Nobody cares about that. Shiite boys died in Sunni areas to liberate the country, and people are beyond that.”

One case in point is the campaign of Fatlawi, who, the analyst says, had a reputation in the past for sectarianism, but has focused instead on helping young Iraqis and giving services.

“She’s actually giving me hope that these guys have learned a lesson,” says the analyst, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his job. “It’s not because they have all of a sudden become good people, it’s because they know what is good for their political career, and if they want to survive, they better stop talking about sectarianism.”

Iraq’s electoral lists are dominated by stalwart veteran politicians, like Mr. Abadi and his Victory Alliance – its name is a direct reference to Abadi’s handling of the anti-ISIS fight, and his overseeing the rebuilding of Iraqi armed forces since ISIS invaded from Syria in June 2014.

His party is the first since 2003 to field candidates in every Iraqi province, with candidates billed as sectarian bridge-builders. Also in the running is former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at the head of a largely Shiite bloc.

And likely to gain many votes is the Fatah Alliance, the largest grouping of some 500 candidates linked to the mostly Shiite militias called the Popular Mobilization Forces. The PMF played a key roll in the anti-ISIS fight and are led by their commander, Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of trade who has close ties to Iran.

So while the pitches may be new, the personalities are the same.

Getting out the vote

“For most Iraqis, what they are seeing is another election where about 90 percent or more are the same – the same leadership – and a political process that has not worked since 2003,” says Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“Everyone is saying the same thing: It’s all anti-corruption, services, employment,” says Mr. Mansour. “So there is a sense that, can you actually get what you want through politics, though these kind of elections?”

The answer is no, for many younger Iraqis, especially.

“Do you trust any of these candidates?” asks a perfume seller in the Baghdad Mall, Tahar Nabil, who says he won’t vote.

“I was optimistic because we heard a lot of promises before the [2014] vote. I voted last time and our country was destroyed,” says Mr. Nabil, a computer network engineer who says he has no choice but to work at a lowly job selling perfume.

“The government doesn’t provide opportunities or jobs for young people,” he says. “I have dreams to have a family and kids. But there is no program by the government to satisfy the young people and their dreams.”

That problem was compounded by the ISIS invasion and war, which “took us decades back,” says Nabil. “If we had any hope or wishes for the future before ISIS, after that our hopes were deleted…. All the government money goes for the wars, they don’t care about young people.”

Among the key variables in Saturday’s election is how many of them will choose to vote.

“You’re going to have over 3 million newly eligible voters, who could potentially participate in this election and turn it upside down,” says the Baghdad analyst. “These guys don’t remember Saddam, they don’t remember what it’s like not to vote … and they don’t know the value of it and the cost of getting it.”

So among the wall-to-wall campaign banners are also get-out-the-vote posters hung by the election commission. One shows a young boy held in the arms of his father waving an Iraqi flag, superimposed on a ballot the shape of Iraq. It reads: “Your voice builds the nation.”