Analysis: Why Iraq’s election matters

Twelve hours after voting began in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the country’s airspace opened. It had been closed as voting began Saturday, one of many security measures, including curfews, imposed during a sensitive election.

It is the fifth parliamentary vote since Saddam Hussein was swept from power by the 2003 US-led invasion and the first election since ISIS was routed last year and driven back into the caves and cellars whence it came.

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There is a lot of enthusiasm for the election. In the Kurdish region the Peshmerga, local security forces, went to vote two days before the polls opened, so that they could be on hand to keep order as the members of the public cast their ballots. Turnout reached 80% among these 250,000 Kurdish security personnel, many of whom played a key role in the war on ISIS over the last four years.

In Mosul, women showed off their purple-dyed fingertips, dipped in ink as they voted, to show hope for the future.

But there are reports of problems across Iraq. In the Kurdish region some complained that they could not vote because their biometric cards did not work. One man reported that voting machines had malfunctioned. Some tweeted that TV stations were spreading propaganda for one party or another. ISIS also attempted to stop the polling. In Diyala province one report said two suicide bombers were intercepted and killed. Voter turnout was 35% by noon.

This election is important to cleanse the stain of ISIS on the country. It is almost four years since ISIS conquered Mosul and rampaged across a third of Iraq, capturing many Sunni Arab cities and then systematically murdering the minorities in areas they conquered. On June 10, 2014, they murdered Shi’ite prisoners at Badush Prison and on June 12 they murdered 1,500 Shi’ite members of the Iraqi security forces, mostly air force cadets, at Camp Speicher. They expelled the Christians of Nineveh Plains and blew up the churches. In August they attacked the Yazidis, committing genocide against the men and selling thousands of women and children into slavery. Many of those women are still missing. In just the last week a young Yazidi child was found in Turkey and another was found in Syria, abandoned by ISIS members, and reunited with their families.

THE ELECTION is a way to break with this past. Iraqi Christians have lined up at the polls and many posted photos of themselves smiling after they voted. Yazidis also voted, some in the Internally Displaced Person camps they still live in.

Despite rumors of low turnout, it appears that among many minority communities the election is seen as a way to close the door on a terrible past and bring hope for a better future. The question is whether the central government can deliver on promises to these communities. In and around Nineveh many Christian towns require major investment. Many Christians who fled ISIS chose to then move abroad in 2015-2016. Now they have a chance to go back, but resources in Iraq are often being redirected to major cities.

In Yazidi areas there has been almost no investment in helping people return. In Sinjar city the destruction of the war remains, despite several years of liberation. There are still dangerous improvised explosive devices in some areas and there is a lack of health services and educational services. For many this makes it impossible to return, and yet the people seek to vote and hope that Baghdad will listen to their concerns.

In Kurdish areas this is the first election since the Independence Referendum in September 2017. That referendum resulted in clashes with Baghdad as federal forces occupied Kirkuk city and Sinjar, and Peshmerga retreated. For several months the Kurdish region was subjected to sanctions, its international airports closed, and Baghdad struggled with Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, over budget disputes. Kurds would like to move beyond this difficult six months, but they do not know what the future holds. Many were enthusiastic for independence in September. But that turned to dashed hopes and anger when it appeared the authorities were not serious about the next step. Riots and protests ensued amid accusations that one or another party had turned “traitor.” This has left the major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, divided, and politics divided as well. Many Kurds predict they will lose seats in the national parliament, eroding their influence. Since 2003 the Kurds have played a key role in Iraq, but some wonder what comes next if Abadi and Iranian-backed Shi’ite parties win.

For the Shi’ites the election also presents a divided slate. Although Shi’ite militias dominated the campaign against ISIS and Iran’s influence seems at a peak, the various Shi’ite leaders are not united. Abadi created his own electoral list and is running against Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister. The Shi’ite militias under Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri have their own “Fateh” list. Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite cleric, has his own list as well and has allies, oddly, among the small Iraqi Communist Party.

WHOEVER WINS the election will appear to cement Iran’s influence in Iraq. The fact that Shi’ite militias, called the Popular Mobilization Units, have not only become an official force in government now but also field their own candidates creates a worrying trend. How can an official security force have its own candidates? And why would a country give a legitimizing stamp of approval to an officially sectarian paramilitary force? The PMU has to decide if it is a state security force or a Shi’ite party or a militia. It still wants to be all three.