Iraq’s landmark 2018 national elections—the first since the military defeat of ISIS—presented an opportunity for a much-needed course correction for the country’s sclerotic political process. Unfortunately, that opportunity was not seized properly. The vote was marred by claims of widespread fraud, low voter turnout, a delayed results announcement and a protracted government formation process. Originally scheduled for the spring of 2017, Iraq’s parliament recently delayed provincial elections again, moving the date to early April 2020. The election delay will give Iraq’s institutions further time to do the important work necessary to get these elections right and, thus, get Iraq’s politics on the right track. But, it is urgent for this work—bolstered by support from the international community—to start now.

Iraqis chant slogans during a protest in Mosul, March 24, 2019. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Iraqis chant slogans during a protest in Mosul, March 24, 2019. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Poor governance in Iraq has given rise to an accumulation of grievances, as Iraqis suffer from a lack of basic services like clean water, electricity, healthcare, and employment opportunities. The failures of Iraq’s political process and the political class have also contributed to two existential crises: the rise of ISIS and a referendum on Kurdish independence. Internal squabbles within political parties and intense political divisions have made the country vulnerable to outside influence, particularly from Iran.

Credible, transparent provincial elections with results that are respected by a wide swathe of Iraqis and lead to an inclusive and effective government are key to moving the country forward. A successful election could provide increased public engagement with the political process, enhance the state’s institutional resilience, and, consequently deepen Iraq’s democracy. This is a critical step in reducing the role of armed groups and external influence.

Despite the importance of these elections, the opportunity to get them right could be missed because so much Iraqi and international attention is focused on U.S.-Iran tensions, how Iraq will deal with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), other governance challenges, divisive partisanship, and growing concern over the resurgence of ISIS.

How can Iraq avoid the pitfalls of past elections? It will require a collective effort across the country’s political and ethnoreligious sectors and the international community to put the building blocks in place—and it needs to start now. These are keys issues that must be addressed.

The Election Law

The recently passed provincial election law is facing criticism for favoring bigger political blocs and making it difficult for new candidates on smaller lists to compete. Bigger political blocs, however, say that the splintering of votes leads to indecision and ineffective governance. If the door on amendments opens in the lead up to the upcoming elections or future ones, there is room for improvement to allow for more representation, including for religious minorities. The broader, necessary change is for Iraqi leaders to have an inclusive mindset because consensus and compromise are at the core of democratic governance. The provincial election law sets the rules for the game and is the first building block to a credible election.

Ensuring Integrity in the Electoral Process

The failures of successive administrations have discouraged Iraqis from engaging in the political process and devalued the electoral exercise. Many Iraqis believe that the process will not be fair because traditional political forces and the PMF have all the advantages and the power of intimidation: they can threaten to take people’s jobs, or even their lives, if they don’t fall in line. Because the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is comprised of members who represent these actors, it is widely believed that commissioners will be protecting their own parties’ interests and not those of the people.

The IHEC’s performance in the 2018 national elections was widely criticized, with some candidates even accusing the commission of rigging the results, failing to investigate irregularities, and that the new electronic voting system was hacked. Even though many of these accusations were not formally proven and made primarily by candidates who lost, they damaged the credibility of the commission and the elections.

Further lending credence to these accusations, the commission, which was originally formed as an independent body, is now headed by members who are chosen through a partisan quota. One vital step toward ensuring the integrity of this electoral process is a credibly neutral commission that puts the interests of all Iraqis above partisanship. More international and domestic monitoring throughout the electoral process is of the utmost importance.

Getting Voters to the Polls

Low voter turnout undermines elected leaders and their ability to govern. One major takeaway from the 2018 national elections is that Iraqis have lost faith in the political process, the political class and elections themselves as a mechanism for change. Many Iraqi community and civil society leaders expected there to be low turnout in 2018 and those predictions proved true. The official turnout figure was 43.5 percent, but many believe the actual number was roughly half.

Unlike in past elections, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani did not ask people to vote in 2018, but said they should decide for themselves. Although this was viewed as a positive development for taking the role of religious leaders and religious duty out of the process, it may have also had a suppressing effect on turnout.

One important factor that could deter influential actors like Sistani and civil society leaders from encouraging people to vote this time around is the election law itself and the perceived integrity of the process. If the proper measures are put in place—including a good election law, proper IHEC conduct, and international monitoring—Sistani and others very well could endorse the importance of getting to the polls. But, there is a lot to be done to get there.

Iraqis will also be encouraged to go to the polls if they believe the process is transparent, free, and fair and if there are a slate of diverse, respected candidates.

Preventing Election Violence

Election violence in Iraq often occurs after results have been announced, when the losing parties protest through accusations of fraud and abuse amid a tense environment. Any irregularity, real or perceived, offers an opportunity for losing or winning parties and candidates to mobilize their followers and use violence to protest or defend the results. If voters believe the process is free and fair and that the results are representative of the vote, they are less likely to respond with violence, even if their candidates lose.

It is never too early for Iraq’s security institutions to start preparing for ensuring the safety of the electorate, candidates, polling stations and centers, and the overall public order. Iraq’s international security partners such as the Combined Joint Task Force of Operation Inherent Resolve could lend advise and expertise in this process.

In Iraq, election violence has been relatively minimal. Rather, it was the failure of the governments formed after elections to meet people’s expectations that stoked violence. In a country with history of using violence to achieve political and non-political outcomes, the loss of faith in elections and institutions of the state makes Iraq more vulnerable to violence, especially with so many armed groups still around, the wounds from the ISIS conflict still fresh, and external actors aggressively pushing their agendas.

Each province has its unique situation, but provinces like Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Salahaddin, present particular challenges and need special attention because of the mix of complicated factors at play. These are provinces with diverse populations and massive displacement issues that are still recovering from the fight against ISIS. The PMF complicates political, security, economic, and social dynamics in these areas, which are part of disputed territories between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad.

How the International Community Can Help

Election monitoring missions, conducted by independent actors, observe and evaluate how an electoral process comports with international standards for democratic elections. For the provincial elections, international monitoring will be welcomed by the Iraqi people and many political actors, even those like Sistani and the Sadrists who traditionally have favored a limited to no role for the international community.

International and domestic monitoring in all phases of the process will put pressure on the IHEC to ensure electoral integrity. The IHEC’s conduct is a key ingredient for restoring trust in the electoral process and international and domestic monitoring can help spur the commission to deliver. As mentioned above, Iraq’s international security partners can also serve a valuable advisory role in how to prevent violence.

Poorly run elections illustrate poor governance. In the lead up to the 2018 elections, Iraqis had little confidence that a new government would be able to deliver for the people. The summer after the elections, demonstrations in Basra and other parts of southern Iraq showed how Iraqis’ patience is waning. Nine months into the life of the new government, there is little tangible change for the people to point to. And the federal government cannot deliver alone: It needs the complementary role of provincial governments.

Elections are an important milestone in any democracy, but the stakes for Iraq are particularly high. After nearly two decades of conflict and the horrors and privations of the ISIS occupation, Iraqis deserve responsive, inclusive federal and provincial governments that address their concerns and advance security and prosperity. Now is the time to put the country on the path to stability. Getting Iraq’s provincial elections right is a critical step on that path and will consolidate the military gains made against ISIS, deepen Iraqi democracy and serve as a bulwark against violence and malign external interference.

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