The Many Challenges of Iraq’s Upcoming Elections

Iraqis have participated in parliamentary elections of various forms since Ottoman constitutional rule, when they chose their representatives in the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies. They also participated in elections during the monarchical period and under the rule of the Baath Party. Today, Baghdad holds its post-2003 invasion elections according to rules stipulated in the Iraqi constitution of 2005. While an upper chamber, the Federation Council, has never been elected, a lower chamber, the Council of Representatives, stands as the parliamentary authority for the country. It is responsible for electing the executive authority from among its members, with the prime minister chosen from the largest parliamentary bloc, while the state president and two vice presidents are elected by council members through direct secret ballot.

One of the most important factors leading to the failure of the political process is the marginalization of the Sunni population.

Perhaps the main problem with the Iraqi electoral system lies in the voting mechanism, which relies on electoral lists rather than individual candidacies. This system fails to reflect the accurate choice of citizens and enables large blocs to dominate the political process and to remain in power—this has been the case since the American occupation. It became especially true after Iraq adopted the amended Sainte-Lague method to calculate votes, allocating more votes to the top names on electoral lists. Like in previous election rounds, the May 12 elections are thus expected to prolong the problems endemic in the voting process itself and to keep corrupt and sectarian forces in power.

Political Divisions and Problems

Iraq suffers from numerous deeply rooted divisions in the context of the Islamist parties’ dominance, particularly the Shia Islamic Daawa Party. Its secretary-general, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, became prime minister in 2005; he was succeeded by Nouri al-Maliki for two terms, and then by the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has served since 2014. On the other hand, the two major parties in the Kurdistan Alliance, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have dominated power and representation in Iraqi Kurdistan. This has contributed to the PUK’s fragmentation and the emergence of the Gorran movement among its ranks, in defiance of the party’s late leader Jalal Talabani. The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan further deteriorated as former Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani insisted on organizing a referendum to secede from Iraq—a decision that was rejected by the Iraqi government, neighboring countries, and the international community.

Perhaps one of the most important factors leading to the failure of the political process and its respective current legislative elections is the marginalization of a large segment of Iraqi society, namely the Sunni population. The Sunni segment constitutes an overwhelming majority in five central and northern provinces; it also has a weighty presence in and around Baghdad as well as in other southern provinces such as Babel, where Sunnis constitute 40 percent of the population, Basra, and Dhi Qar. This marginalization began with Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s accession to power in 2005 and intensified during former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s two terms, as he personally contributed to the practice.

This marginalization of the Sunnis persists as their region is destroyed and they are displaced by the so-called Islamic State (IS) and by Iran-supported Shia militias. Exacerbating this situation is the denial of return to millions of them under the pretext that IS terrorists may sneak back to “liberated” areas. The demographic imbalance resulting from this displacement and the destruction of major cities such as Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah cast doubt on the integrity of the upcoming May 12 elections.

General Characteristics of the Upcoming Competition

It is most likely that the elections will be determined by how Iraqis look at the following pivotal issues:

Corruption. There is an Iraqi consensus––among Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds––that the political clique currently in power is corrupt and responsible for the deterioration of security as well as the unstable economic, social, and political situation in Iraq. Many are also worried about electronic tampering with vote counting. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office responded to the United States’ offer to secure the counting process by stating that it was “our responsibility” to do so. This is augmented by a degree of cynicism whereby dominant parties have recruited some academics and civil society personalities to convince voters to support them. Many voters also worry about the possibility that the Baathists may return to parliament, after the US Ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, recently made a statement about that.

Influence of religious parties. Despite the widespread impression of deleterious religious interference in politics, at present, the Shia marjaiyah (high religious authority) has advised against “testing the tested,” a slogan recommending against reelecting the current political figures. This will likely alter the mood of Shia voters and, therefore, increase the probability of change. However, the problem remains in the Sainte-Lague method, which will bring hundreds of thousands of votes in favor of leaders of large blocs who also happen to lead or benefit from the current political process.

The Iraqi electoral scene is witnessing a palpable voter preference for meaningful change

Subsequently, the ruling elite picked new secular names for their electoral blocs devoid of religious references, but they retained the same leaders. For example, Maliki leads the State of Law Coalition, Abadi leads the Victory and Reform Alliance, and Ammar al-Hakim leads the al-Hikma (Wisdom) bloc. The goal is to persuade voters to vote for them because of their purported secular approach. For their part, low-level Shia clerics who are engaged with the masses will continue to play a significant role in shaping voter opinion in Shia areas. Moreover, a recent survey indicated that 93 percent of those who voted for religious parties were Shia, while only 6 percent of Sunnis chose to vote for a religious party.

Disparate electoral lists.

  1. The Iraqi List (led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi) has successfully transcended sectarian and ethnic loyalties and includes key figures from across the Iraqi spectrum. Previously, this list ranked first in the 2010 elections, but an Iranian-American understanding stopped the head of the list from forming the government and commissioned Maliki with the task instead. This move plunged the country into bloodshed that has persisted until recently.
  2. Despite its religious foundation, the Sadrist Movement is trying to distance itself from sectarianism in the current election. Muqtada al-Sadr has blocked many Sadrist Movement representatives in the current parliament from running again. He has supported the formation of a secular government of technocrats.
  3. Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition are eager to return to power and form a government for the third time, although the public mood is not supportive of Maliki’s reelection. In addition, the Shia religious authority has advised against voting for previously elected officials, upholding the slogan “do not test the tested.”
  4. The number of candidates is very large, at 6,986, almost 20 times the 328 seats allocated for the Iraqi provinces, as follows: Irbil 16 seats, Anbar 15, Basra 25, Sulaymaniyah 18, al-Qadisiyah 11, al-Muthanna 7, Najaf 12, Babel 17, Baghdad 71, Dohuk 12, Diyala 14, Dhi Qar 19, Salaheddine 12, Karbala 11, Kirkuk 13, Maysan 10, Ninawa 34, and Wasit 11. This will disperse votes and subsequently increase the chances of winning for unpopular bloc leaders.
  5. Some Sunni public opinion leaders and certain Shia clerics, such as Jawad al-Khalisi, as well as some secular movements stepped up their calls to boycott the elections.
  6. The Shia Hashd al-Shaabi (Mobilization Forces) list seeks to win enough seats to form a government. It is running in the elections with the al-Fateh list headed by the leader of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, who is known for his close ties with Iran and Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani.
  7. There also is a list by the Saeroun bloc which is comprised of the National Integrity Party backed by the Sadrist Movement, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Republican Assembly, the Movement for Reform and Progress, the Fair State Party, the Youth Party, and the Change Party.

Transcending the ethnic and sectarian divide could be one of the most significant outcomes of the upcoming elections.

Therefore, the electoral environment is confused and foggy. Political parties associated with Shia Islam still aspire to win elections by grooming Abadi, for example, who is presenting himself as a secular candidate while still representing the Daawa Party. Moreover, the Sadrists may eventually act as Shia rather than as Iraqi patriots, as their leader Muqtada al-Sadr promotes. The Kurds will enter the upcoming elections in several fragmented alliances, especially after Barham Saleh, a prominent member in the Kurdistan Alliance, split and formed an independent electoral bloc, exacerbating the rupture in the PUK. Finally, a survey has estimated that voter turnout in the upcoming elections is forecast to reach 60 percent for Sunnis and Kurds and 51 percent for the Shia.

Coalitions and Blocs to Run in the Elections

Prominent electoral coalitions include the following:

  1. Victory and Reform Bloc and State of Law. These have emerged from the Islamic Daawa Party which gave its members the freedom to decide their own affiliations because of the party’s split. The first election bloc is the Victory and Reform Bloc led by Haider al-Abadi which is supported by Daawa Party members and Sunni forces, including the Independent Bloc and former Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi. The al-Fateh Bloc, led by Shia militiaman Hadi al-Amiri, was allied with Abadi before pulling out of that coalition. Abadi insists that his bloc transcends sectarian lines with affiliates hailing from various forces, particularly Sunni Arabs. However, his not forsaking his Daawa Party affiliation calls his claim into question.The second bloc representing the Daawa Party is Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law, which aspires to return to power despite its weak chances because a majority of Iraqis blame it for the fall of Mosul in 2014, the spread of IS, and corruption during Maliki’s two terms. They also blame Maliki for protecting key corrupt members in his party, like former Minister of Trade Abdel Falah al-Sudani. A special weakness is that State of Law can no longer garner the support of military personnel since Maliki is no longer prime minister.
  2. The al-Wataniya Coalition led by Iyad Allawi. It is comprised of non-sectarian liberal forces. Although Allawi is Shia, his bloc has always enjoyed broad support from Sunnis. In 2010, the coalition received a majority of seats and was about to form a government, only to be thwarted by a US-Iran understanding to make Maliki the prime minister. In the upcoming elections, Allawi is allying with Salim al-Jabouri, head of the National Rally for Reform, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the Arab Front for Dialogue, as well as with Kurdish blocs and figures, helping his coalition in transcending ethnic and sectarian lines. If successful in allying with the Kurdish bloc, Allawi would ensure an easy majority of parliamentary seats.
  3. The Istiqama Bloc. Led by Muqtada al-Sadr who is not running but insists that his bloc is non-sectarian, transcends minor affiliations, and does not include any incumbents. Despite his support for Abadi’s reform efforts, Sadr has criticized the prime minister, charging that his bloc includes hated sectarian figures who protect corruption officials.
  4. Al-Fateh Bloc. This grouping represents the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militia and consists of 18 political wings, including the Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. This bloc has pulled out of its alliance with Abadi and will run independently in the elections, hoping to win enough seats to bargain with the bloc that will name the prime minister.
  5. The Kurdish Bloc. The Kurds continue to suffer from fragmentation and division because of the September 2017 referendum on independence. However, the United Nations Mission in Iraq succeeded in persuading the different Kurdish factions to sign a code of honor regarding their participation in the upcoming elections. The other electoral blocs across Iraq have also signed the same code of honor under the supervision of the UN Mission.


The Iraqi electoral scene is witnessing a palpable voter preference for meaningful change and refraining from electing corrupt politicians. However, public opinion is easy to sway, especially among ordinary people—hence the legitimate concern about minor Shia clerics who engage with the people through their religious centers and satellite channels. Their potential influence lies in their ability to portray the conflict to average Shia adherents as a battle between the Shia and their right to rule the country, on the one hand, and the Baathists and Sunnis, on the other. This would affect the mood of such a large segment that boasts the highest voter turnout. In this context, the decisive factor will be the extent to which the public can maintain this positive change that could drive the fight against corruption.

With continuous agitation for change and the directive of top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani to abstain from reelecting corrupt officials, the elections should yield positive results in general. Abadi may win a majority of parliamentary votes, and the chances of the success of Allawi’s list as well as other lists with true secular inclinations may be high. Depending on their support or alliance with the blocs of Abadi and Allawi, the Kurds will decide which bloc gets to name the prime minister. Further, the fortunes of the al-Fateh bloc will increase as it may ally with Ammar al-Hakim and other blocs in order to form a Shia majority that takes over the government from the Daawa Party. The Kurds and liberals will be the deciding bloc in this case as well.

Transcending the ethnic and sectarian divide could be one of the most significant outcomes of the upcoming elections. If successful, this would pave the way for transforming the currently divisive political process and reviving Iraqi national identity.