Iraqi forces deploy in the Bajwaniyah village, about 30 kms south of Mosul, on October 18, 2016 after they liberated the village from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. (Photo: RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Security, Religion, Corruption Take Center Stage In Iraq Election Campaign

Car bomb attack on candidate highlights ongoing instability

With the May 12 elections in Iraq quickly approaching, concerns are mounting over the security situation and how it might affect sectarian tensions and, as a corollary, the vote’s legitimacy and outcome. This fear was heightened last week as one person was killed and 11 others injured when a car bomb targeted Amar Hadaya Kahiya—who himself was wounded—a leading figure in the Turkmen Front party in the Iraqi province of Kirkuk.

This is the first time Iraqis will head to the polls since the government declared victory over the Islamic State, which ruled over large swaths of Iraq, including major cities, since 2014. ISIS still controls isolated pockets of territory, primarily in Sunni-dominated regions, and has continued to launch intermittent attacks against Baghdad’s troops. Experts contend that the ongoing ability of terrorists to perpetrate attacks—presumably with help or tacit approval of sympathetic local populations that, at the very least, have chosen to turn a blind eye—points to the continued existence in Iraq of the fundamental sectarian divisions, if not overt hatreds, that foster extremism and have left the country broken.

Further complicating matters are the many armed groups that can be mobilized by political factions or tribes. “The worry is that when there is a closely contested election between parties with militias you could potentially see clashes instead of political debates,” Nathaniel Rabkin, Managing Editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, explained to The Media Line. “There’s such a history of political violence and political assassinations that there is certainly an atmosphere of intimidation that exists in Iraq,” he elaborated. “Established parties are situated in heavily armed offices which means newer, independent candidates struggle to gain footing. This, of course, extends to voters.”

The current turmoil has, according to Dr. Nussaibah Younis, an Associate Fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, created “widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling class and a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the population around these elections. There is a lot of cynicism about the political process,” she expounded to The Media Line, “as Iraqis are seeing many of the same faces and many of the same parties and these actors have demonstrated that they are incapable of providing what the people want. That is, to address the broad concerns of economic stagnation, job creation and corruption.”

These issues are even more pronounced in the many regions of Iraq containing nearly three million people forced from their homes by the military campaign against ISIS. Overall, some 8.7 Iraqis are desperate for humanitarian assistance and, to date, the government has been unable to meet their needs.

Moreover, Dr. Younis explained, mass civil disorder is a breeding ground for electoral fraud. “Almost every Iraqi politician that I’ve communicated with is worried about this, particularly in areas with large groups of displaced people. Therefore,” she stressed, “while it’s unclear whether the elections will be free and fair, expectations are that they won’t be. All of the claims of fraud could lead to chaos afterwards, especially given predictions that the results will be so close.”

Forecasting the results of the Iraqi vote is incredibly difficult, given that more than 200 parties, fielding almost 7,000 candidates, are vying for positions in the 329-member Council of Representatives; which, in turn, chooses the president and prime minister. Furthermore, the ruling State of Law Coalition, which won the last elections with 92 seats, has been split into two separate tickets, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi heading an alliance called “Victory” and his predecessor, current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, leading the State of Law list. Supporters of the Dawa Party, from which they both come, are free to back either bloc. Multiple other Shiite coalitions are also competing, in addition to equally complex parties and alliances formed by various Sunni, Kurdish and other minority sects.

Adding to the uncertainty is the growing influence of Iran, which plays a key role—perhaps even as kingmaker—in the intricate follow-up process of forming an Iraqi government. “The Iranians are very helpful, using threats, incentives or otherwise,” Dr. Younis concluded. “While they don’t control Iraqi politicians, they are good at persuading them. In the [anticipated] free-for-all, the Iranian effect, while hard to quantify, could well be a deciding factor.”

Like most everything in Iraq, the elections will be an arduous ordeal, full of political infighting, external manipulations and security threats. Nevertheless, with ISIS neutered but not extinguished, and with an estimated $88.2 billion needed to rebuild Iraq’s long-neglected infrastructure, the vote marks a crucial point along the path towards building a more prosperous future.

(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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