On December 18, Iraqis will elect members of the provincial councils, the highest oversight bodies of subnational government and key providers of public services. The elections are the first at the provincial level in over a decade and come in the wake of the 2019 anti-government protests that resulted in the dissolution of the provincial councils following demands from the protesters who accused them of corruption. Recent findings from the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework in Nineveh Province reveal that candidates are facing a distrustful electorate that is lacking confidence in state institutions.

A woman cast her vote in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad on March 7, 2010. Iraqis will vote in provincial council elections on December 18. (Michael Kamber/The New York Times)
A woman cast her vote in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad on March 7, 2010. Iraqis will vote in provincial council elections on December 18. (Michael Kamber/The New York Times)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani’s government has prioritized the holding of provincial elections since the Federal Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that affirmed the constitutionality of the councils. However, with the upcoming elections there is a fear that the councils — and the subnational governance process in general — will ultimately revert to their prior ineffectual form.

A Look at Nineveh Province

Perhaps nowhere is this concern more prevalent than in Nineveh Province, home to a heterogenous population comprised of, among others, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis (Ezidis). Still recovering from the conflict with ISIS, Nineveh’s unique political landscape is contested by a constellation of political actors, including the two dominant Kurdish political parties; a myriad of Sunni political groups, some of which are new to the political scene; and, most recently, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), via the Coordination Framework, a Shia bloc that is believed to be backed by Iran, and their allies and affiliates.

Coloring the jostling for political power in the province is the fact that several of its territories are considered disputed by both the Federal Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, a fact which raises the political stakes of the upcoming vote. Further, Iraqis and Iraq watchers see the elections as another opportunity that may enable Iran to cement its influence in the province through the armed and political groups that it is backing.

Given these dynamics, the outcome of Nineveh’s provincial vote will be crucial for several reasons. It will highlight the extent to which Kurdish, Sunni Arab, Shia and minority parties have support at the local level, thereby revealing the degree to which new political players, particularly Iranian-backed factions, have penetrated a political landscape long dominated by a few traditional Sunni Arab and Kurdish entities. At the same time, the vote’s outcome will also highlight whether the province’s subnational governance process can pivot from past practices rooted in exclusionary outcomes toward a new path grounded in responsiveness, inclusiveness and accountability.

Recent findings from USIP’s Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework (CSMF) for Nineveh — a longitudinal survey conducted since 2018 in Hamdaniya, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar districts — provides insight on the political landscape in advance of the elections as well as what Nineveh’s constituencies desire from subnational governance institutions and actors after the elections. These findings, if addressed, may help push Nineveh’s governance future onto a brighter path that meets the needs of the province’s citizenry.

Nineveh’s Electoral Field

Several parties and coalitions are vying for Nineveh’s 29 provincial council seats, three of which are reserved for minorities. These groups broadly fall under the ethno-sectarian distribution that characterizes national politics along Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Shia Arab lines. Among those seeking to represent Sunni Arab interests are a list connected to Najm al-Jabouri, the recently resigned governor of Nineveh Province who is banned from running in the election due to his links with the Ba’ath party; a coalition list headed by former Iraqi vice president Osama al-Nujafi; the Azem Alliance list, headed by Mohammed Nouri Abd and Ahmed al-Jabouri; and one tied to the recently removed speaker of parliament, Mohammed Halbousi’s Taqadoum party. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, which has traditionally exerted significant influence in the province, particularly in disputed areas, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party, are the two main Kurdish parties contesting the elections as they seek to reassert their influence across Nineveh. The Coordination Framework is also competing for seats in Nineveh through two main alliances and minority candidates who are running on various lists tied to larger parties. Of note, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement and other groups have boycotted the upcoming elections across all the provinces.

The Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework’s Findings

CSMF findings highlight that those running for election face a frustrated and distrustful electorate in key districts of Nineveh. The seven rounds of data collected by the CSMF have repeatedly demonstrated low levels of confidence in state institutions. Round seven findings, produced in March 2023, show that the majority of residents in three of the four districts covered by the CSMF — Hamdaniya, Tal Afar and Sinjar — believe state institutions are absent in their locations and that they must turn to other actors to provide for their needs. Tellingly, of the 40% of respondents in all four districts who said that they feel neglected in their areas, the top five actors blamed for the neglect are either government or political entities. Mistrust in the central government and parliament is especially high. On the former, 66% of respondents from all four districts do not feel the central government — the prime minister and his Council of Ministers — is working in their interest; respondents share the same sentiment at an even higher rate — 80% — about their parliamentarians.

Such negative feelings also extend to the electoral process: over two-thirds of residents across all districts have “little” to “no” confidence in elections as a mechanism that can produce positive changes. This sentiment is highest in Sinjar, where nearly 90% of respondents indicate little faith in elections being a tool for positive outcomes. Other CSMF findings help explain some of these negative views, showing that service delivery is perceived to be exceptionally low in Nineveh; that citizens perceive political actors to rely on ethnoreligious identities and divisions to mobilize support while they themselves are moving away from identity-based politics and competition; that political parties and security actors are judged to have undue influence on subnational governance units, thereby skewing governance outcomes; and that the electoral process is perceived as corrupt. 

Rebuilding Trust

What can be done to help repair the relationship with Nineveh’s public? Findings from the CSMF point to two main actions that could go a long way in helping increase citizens’ trust in government and the political process overall.

First, governing actors should focus their efforts after the election on ensuring that essential services (water, sewage, electricity, roads, health and education) are effectively and equally provided in the province. CSMF data from its most recent round show that 56% of survey respondents in the four districts covered do not feel that their essential service needs are being met. The perceived lack of essential services is especially high — over 60% — in Hamdaniya’s subdistrict of Bartella; Mosul’s subdistricts of al-Shoura and Hamam al-Alil; Tal Afar’s subdistricts of Ayadieh and Rabia; and in all of Sinjar’s subdistricts. And to the extent that services are being provided, 40% of survey respondents in the four districts believe that they are not distributed equally across all locations. This is a particular grievance in Tal Afar, where 55% of Sunni Arab, 51% of Kurdish and 51% of Shia Turkmen respondents perceive services to be delivered in a dissimilar fashion.

Other CSMF findings reinforce the fact that governing actors should prioritize governance and service delivery after the provincial elections. When asked what upsets survey respondents most, governance issues — lack of service delivery, tackling corruption and governance neglect — placed second only behind the crimes committed by ISIS. At the same time, when asked what measures would help increase unity and trust in their district, nearly 60% said improved governance, which was tied for first place with economic development. These findings show that service delivery and governance overall have the potential to either aggravate community tensions if neglected or catalyze improved social relations if addressed.  

Second, governing actors should also work on ensuring the advancement of decentralization, or the process of transferring roles, responsibilities and resources to the provincial and district levels. Using several proxy indicators, CSMF findings from round seven indicate strong support for decentralization across the districts covered: 55% of survey respondents said decentralization could make institutions more responsive to the population. And though support for decentralization is lowest in Sinjar, at 40%, it has steadily increased since round five (May/June 2021), when its backing was below 30%. Why communities in Sinjar would feel less sanguine about the prospect for decentralization is rooted in the district’s complex conflict dynamics, which are currently characterized by competing district administrations (one formal and the other unofficial), the presence of several security actors and, partly as a consequence, limited positive interventions by national and provincial governing authorities. Indeed, CSMF data shows Sinjar’s Yazidi and Sunni Arab communities demonstrate markedly lower levels of confidence in the national, provincial and district governing authorities and in the political process overall than residents of other districts, indicating that there is not a level of government that Sinjar’s communities would feel comfortable empowering. Overall, these findings highlight the need to limit federal-provincial competition and disagreement over certain prerogatives, powers and territories that have plagued previous phases of political competition and which remain particularly acute in Sinjar district.

The Way Forward Post-Elections

The extent to which governing and political actors can or will seek to gain citizens’ confidence, provide essential services and push for more localized governance is contingent on various factors. For one, citizens’ confidence is unlikely to substantially increase unless the behavior and performance of political and governing actors changes: less corruption in the political and governing process, less mobilization of supporters along ethno-religious lines and less interventions by dominant political actors that undermine governance are, as the CSMF findings highlight, needed. Indications that these changes can occur, however, are not promising as evidenced by the current electoral period in Nineveh, which seems to be following previous patterns of political behavior that have perpetuated citizens’ dissatisfaction and disillusionment, something exacerbated by a new election law perceived as favoring established political parties at the expense of independent candidates. As a result, low voter turnout is expected on December 18.

Capacity and resource constraints among governing actors also continues to undermine the provision of essential services, which has been made more complicated by federal-provincial jostling over budget allocations. Adding to these challenges is the fact that decentralization is viewed as a somewhat controversial issue in the country. Not only is it sometimes inferred to mean separatism — thereby engendering opposition from federal political actors intent not to see the authorities of the central state diminished — but there is also a view that decentralization merely transfers the multiparty competition over resources from one level to another (i.e., from national to provincial institutions), and does not address the underlying structural problems of corruption.

Despite these challenges, there are steps and actions that can be taken by political and governing actors that would work toward better governing outcomes in Nineveh. For instance, engaging citizens and involving them in decision-making processes would begin to turn the tide against sentiments of mistrust and exclusion. In fact, CSMF findings show greater political inclusion in district-level governing process to be something that would help feelings of unity and trust to emerge in the Nineveh Province, particularly for the residents of Mosul. Involving communities in the province’s budgetary cycle could also help engender more positive views of governance processes as it ensures that their needs are being listened to and prioritized and, hopefully, responded to in the form of budget allocations. Political and governing actors should also work on pushing for the implementation of the 2020 Sinjar Agreement, which would unify the district’s governing administration and bring it much-needed stability, while also mitigating tensions between the Iraq’s Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In summary, while entrenched factors inhibit more responsive and inclusive governance processes from fully materializing, including the disputed territories issue, there remain spaces for political and governing actors to engage in that would help steer Nineveh Province’s governing outcomes in a better direction. Should such actors and their supporters seize upon these chances in the post-election period, then Nineveh may indeed be entering a more responsive and inclusive phase in its governance history.

Yomnna Helmi is the senior program specialist with the Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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