Iraq will hold its fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 U.S. invasion — the second since the formal end of the occupation in 2011 — and things are looking murky for Saturday’s poll.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), still present in pockets in the country, has already threatened to attack polling stations, saying anyone who participates will be considered “an infidel.” In preparation for Saturday’s polls, the government will seal the borders and shut down the airports for 24 hours in order to minimize security threats.
There are nearly 7,000 candidates in 87 parties competing for 329 seats this election, and roughly 24 million eligible voters.
Early voting for members of the military wrapped up on Thursday night, and there’s no party that is clearly leading the pack thus far. All parties — especially the Shia bloc — have gone through serious fragmentation.
Iraq is going through a rough recovery after ISIS fighters out of key cities (with help from Kurdish Peshmerga and Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi fighters), and needs stability and security above all else. And so current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi party is favored if only by virtue of inertia.
Al-Abadi (a Shia) is backed by the United States, but his cross-sectarian Nasr al-Iraq (Victory of Iraq) Coalition party is still facing challenges.
The Shia-majority Hashd al-Shaabi coalition of fighters withdrew from Nasr’s party in January over what it said was “unwanted people joining the coalition,” probably referring to Amar al-Hakim’s Hikma (Wisdom) Movement. Additionally, al-Abadi will face the consequence of refusing to acknowledge the results of the Kurdish independence referendum last fall. There are several Kurdish parties also vying for votes, and they will certainly chip away at whatever support al-Abadi might still have among Iraq’s Kurdish population.
The Shia factions have messily split into five coalitions. In addition to al-Abadi’s Nasr Coalition and Hikma, there’s also Fatah (Conquest), Dawlat al-Qanun (State of Law), and al-Sairoon (The Marchers, aka Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform).
The Hashd al-Shaabi (also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces) has thrown its support (and candidates) behind Fatah, led by Hadi al-Amiri, a Shia militia leader who lived in exile in Iran for years and who, Reuters reports, has strong ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
As though paving the way for a potential loss for al-Abadi, an unnamed “western diplomat” told Reuters that the Americans know they can work with al-Amiri, but some voters might consider him too closely aligned with Iran. Al-Abadi tried forming a coalition with al-Amiri earlier this year, but that effort fell apart in 24 hours due to “technical reasons.”
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawlat al-Qanun is also reportedly polling well, although it remains to be seen if voters will forgive his long history of corruption. Roughly $500 billion went “missing” from government coffers during his tenure from 2006 to 2014; people were on government payrolls who never actually showed up to work, with several high-level ministers implicated in the graft.
The spokesman for the country’s Commission of Integrity said in 2015 that “600 officials including ministers, deputy ministers, advisors, general directors have been sued on grounds of corruption. There are even officials who have been sentenced to 130 years in jail.”
He added, “Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also been sued for corruption but there is still no solid decision or development so, he is still out of jail.” (The case has yet to go anywhere).
Al-Sairoon, meanwhile, is an interesting combination of Islamists loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and the secularists in the Iraqi Communist Party, pushing a largely anti-corruption platform.
The Sunni parties — largely displaced over fighting with ISIS over the past four years — had asked that the elections be delayed for up to six months as few people felt their towns and villages were safe enough to return to by this point, nor could the local polling stations organize.
But al-Abadi denied that request in January, ordering up to 2 million internally displaced people back to their towns by this weekend.