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In Iraq, A Faltering Democracy



The great hope of the Bush Administration was to bring democracy to Iraq, after so many decades of despotism, by Saddam Hussein and those assorted generals and strongmen who preceded him, and thereby that country could serve as a model – a light-unto-the-Muslim nations – to be emulated. There was plenty of excitement, not least in the American media, when Iraq held its first presidential elections in 2005, with the proud voters holding up their purple-dyed fingers to show that they had voted. There was a 58% voter turnout, ranging from 89% in the Kurdish region of Dahuk to two percent in the Sunni region of Anbar. In 2014’s parliamentary elections, turnout was about the same – 60%. But in 2018, it dropped to 44.8%. But in the parliamentary elections held on October 10, 2021, turnout sank still further, to 41%. America, by contrast, even though it has the lowest voter turnout of any major democracy, still manages to have two-thirds of the eligible voters turn out.

A report on this low turnout is here: “Iraqis vote in general election with a low turnout reflecting the nation’s apathy,” Reuters, October 10, 2021:

Iraqis were voting on Sunday in a parliamentary election with a low turnout, after many lost faith in the democratic system brought in by the US-led invasion of 2003.

The established, Shi’ite Islamist-dominated ruling elite whose most powerful parties have armed wings is expected to sweep the vote, with the movement led by populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign interference and whose main rivals are Iran-allied Shi’ite groups, seen emerging as parliament’s biggest faction….

After the election was over, it was determined that the turnout had been 41%, up from the 19% recorded at midday, but still a drop from 2018.

High school teacher Abdul Ameer Hassan al-Saadi said he boycotted the election.

”I lost my 17-year-old son Hussain after he got killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during Baghdad protests,” said al-Saadi, whose house is close to a polling station in the mainly Shi’ite Baghdad district of Karrada.

I will not vote for killers and corrupt politicians because the wound inside me and his mother we suffered after losing our boy is still bleeding.”

His son was killed protesting against the same “corrupt politicians” that al-Saadi now says he will not even bother to vote against, for what’s the point? Nothing will change in Iraq, just as nothing has changed in so many other Arab states, where same corrupt elites continue in power and enrich themselves. Think of the fabulously rich ruling families in the Gulf, who help themselves to hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues that rightly belong to the entire nation. Or consider the “victory” of Bashar Assad and his cronies in Syria, who have won their civil war, and will stay in power, but at a terrible cost — six million Syrians have fled the country, another five million are internally displaced, and half a million Syrians have died. Then there is Lebanon, also burdened with a ruling elite, now kept in power by Hezbollah, which wants its collaborators, headed by the Maronite President Michel Aoun, to remain at the helm, to do the terror group’s bidding; Hezbollah fighters violently suppress all popular dissent on the streets. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is the same kind of despotism; Mahmoud Abbas is in the sixteenth year of his four-year term as president, and has his goons put down any displays of popular opposition to his rule; he even had them kill, a few months ago, his leading critic on social media, Nizar Banat. Even though 80% of the Palestinians say they want Abbas out, he’s made it clear that only death will remove him from office.

The chief Iraq election observer of the European Union, Viola von Cramon, said the relatively low turnout means a lot.

“This is a clear, of course a political signal and one can only hope that it will be heard by the politicians and by the political elite of Iraq,” she told reporters.

Those politicians will pay no attention to the low turnout. What do they care if nearly two-thirds of the Iraqi people have lost their faith in democracy? They are in office, they haven’t been voted out because many of those utterly disgusted with them no longer bother to vote, and they can continue to mismanage the economy, and their grand theft of so much of the national wealth.

Nonetheless, some Iraqis were keen to vote in what is Iraq’s fifth parliamentary vote since 2003 – and are hopeful of change. In the northern city of Kirkuk, Abu Abdullah said he arrived to vote an hour before polling stations opened.

Abu Abdullah, in the Kurdish city of Kirkuk, is likely a Kurd himself. He still has enough faith in the system to vote, for he knows that Iraq’s democracy, imperfect as it is, replaced the rule of Saddam Hussein, the mass murderer of the Kurds, and that the President of the country must always be, under the new sectarian arrangement, a Kurd. The Kurds have turned out in far greater numbers than the Arabs ever since the first election in 2005, when voter turnout was 89% in the Kurdish region of Dahuk, but only 2% of the Sunnis in Anbar Province.

“We expect the situation to improve significantly,” he said….

Abu Abdullah’s optimism was not shared by the 59% of eligible voters who did not even bother to vote, but have given up in despair at effecting a change.

Why won’t I vote? Because I have no faith in people. Those we elected, what have they done?,” asked Mohammed Hassan, a resident of Basra. “Look at the garbage, the filth … The previous government’s projects, where are they?”…

Mohammed Hassan speaks for the 59% of the voters who didn’t bother to vote. They have learned, since that first election in 2005, where there was still hope, that the mismanagement and corruption of the political class are endemic, that most of the politicians in Baghdad have been lining their pockets, that the sectarian spoils system means that certain offices are permanently reserved to a Shi’a Arab (the Speaker of the Council of Representatives), a Sunni Arab (the Prime Minister), and a Kurd (the President); Iraq is saddled with identity politics, rather than voting for the most meritorious candidates, Iraqis cast their ballots for those who share their religion and ethnicity.

The populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign influence and is a rival of the Iran-aligned Shi’ite groups, is expected to come first in the election. He has also called for foreign troops to withdraw.

The likely electoral victory for Moqtada al-Sadr in this 2021 election has a plus side. He is anti-American, and has been ever since the Americans first arrived in 2003, but he is also, and equally, against all foreign intervention. He is virulently anti-Iran. As his standing among Iraq’s Shi’a grows with each electoral triumph, the influence of the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia Kata’ib Hezbollah should wane. If Al-Sadr can consolidate his power, he will have the Americans remove their last soldiers in Iraq – already decreased to 2,500 serving in non-combat roles – but at the same time, this populist rabble-rouser, assuming the mantle of an Iraqi nationalist, may insist that Iran cease to interfere in Iraq through its support of Kata’ib Hezbollah. If Iran complies, this will increase his following among others , including Sunni Iraqis, who have been anxious about Iran’s aggressive meddling in Iraq. If the Iranians ignore Moqtada al-Sadr’s diktat, an Iran-Iraq conflict may not be out of the question. That would be, from our point of view, the best possible outcome.

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