Non-Resident Research Fellow in Foreign Policy
IRAM Center for Iranian Studies, Ankara
Special Adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region
Center for Humanitarian Dialogue
Resident Senior Fellow and Director, Iraq Initiative
European Council on Foreign Relations
Arab Center Washington DC
On October 13, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a virtual panel titled “Unpacking Iraq’s Parliamentary Elections: Significance, Outcomes, and Implications.” Panelists were Zeidon Alkinani, Non-resident Research Fellow in Foreign Policy at the IRAM Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara, Turkey; Maria Fantappie, Special Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue; Abbas Kadhim, Resident Senior Fellow and Director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council; and Nussaibah Younis, Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated the event.
Zeidon Alkinani started the discussion by giving an overview of the election results and its implication for the Tishreen (October) protest movement. Alkinani considered the minor electoral reform which broke down 18 electoral districts into 83 as “the most strategic achievement by Tishreen.” These political developments show that change and diversification of the electoral districts, leading to the possibility of voting directly for independent candidates, is possible. Asking how the Tishreen movement engages with the recent results of the election, Alkinani differentiated between those who boycotted the election and rejected any attempt of relegitimization of the status quo and those who participated and formed political parties to represent the Iraqi people. While many observers looked at the two camps as a sign of fragmentation in the protest movement, Alkinani considered that natural in a nationwide protest movement. More importantly, he pointed to the common goals of the movement, based on the same fundamental values to end the established system and militia violence and an “evident, political and economic reform that reflects upon Iraq’s public services.” Alkinani concluded by highlighting that the Tishreen movement will never be a homogeneous entity but will remain an influential protest wave led by the youth for the future of the youth and Iraqi society as a whole.
Nussaibah Younis examined the implications of the election results on governmental reforms in Iraq. The success of the al-Imtidad Party (that emerging from the protest movement) proves that participation in the political system can indeed lead to new parties being elected and that can compete with deeply established parties. While Younis did not expect significant governmental reforms in the next government, she stressed the symbolic message. To her, new parties can prepare for future elections and have significant leverage within the political system. Younis evaluated the immense loss of the Fatah Alliance as a good message showing that “you don’t get rewarded electorally for assassinating protestors.” She hoped that the rejection of violence would lead to further restraint and the inclusion of new protest parties in a less fear-based political environment. In addition, Younis interpreted the success of Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Taqaddum Party as an indication that delivering for the people in the constituencies leads to electoral rewards and helps to shed the image of elitism. If Muqtada al-Sadr ends up controlling the government, the most positive outcome would be to reign in the armed groups and open up the political sphere and thus diversify the political environment. Considering that Sadr is strongly believed to be independent from the west, and aims at more discipline and change in command, Younis assessed him to be “well-placed to lead this conversation”.
Looking at what he called “positive signs” from the election, Abbas Kadhim identified five distinct points. First, he said that the election was very safe and legitimate. Second, Kadhim spoke of the importance of the continuity of elections and the peaceful transition of power from one premier to the next. Third, he emphasized the fact that elections matter and people have a stake in politics. Fourth, he highlighted the fact that independents, many of them with limited means, were able to run and win and possibly become the third largest bloc in parliament. Fifth, Kadhim asserted that this was an example that the Iraqi people decide who the next prime minister will be, not deals between different politicians. Looking at a serious negative sign from the election, Kadhim spoke of the low turnout but emphasized that the results were legitimate. As for relations with the United States, Kadhim said that they will depend on who the next prime minister is going to be. With the Sadrists winning a large plurality in parliament, they are bound to show moderation, but they will insist on the full withdrawal of American troops from the country. He stated that “if it is a Sadrist prime minister, we will see a complete withdrawal” [of US troops]. He insisted that openness on neighbors will continue, but dismissed any possibility that Iraq will normalize relations with Israel.
Maria Fantappie analyzed the impact of the Iraq election on the country’s regional relations and said that it is important that Iraq maintain its neutrality. Having chosen to be a regional conciliator, Iraq can help itself as well as the region. Fantappie said that “the regional environment is more propitious for Iraq’s stability overall and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seen particularly proactive.” What may help Iraq stay neutral in regional interactions is the poorer than expected showing of the pro-Iran political factions. On the other hand, she cautioned, it would be dangerous to form an anti-Iran bloc because some of the pro-Iran forces are also armed and are not shy about using their military might. Fantappie said that what is important for Iraq’s factions after the election is to show moderation and compromise, not only domestically, but also regionally. She stated that those Iraqis who rightly oppose the political system and want to change it have to remember that the regional system “has its own equilibriums.” Commenting on the Kurds, Fantappie said that there appeared to be little competitive space left between parties with old forces maintaining their control as before. This is different from what happened among the Shia where there was competition and new forces and independents were able to win seats and change the old formula of political control.