The Brussels MENA Briefing: Iraq, Beyond the Election – Internal and External Implications

The Brussels MENA Briefing: Iraq, Beyond the Election – Internal and External Implications

November 25, 2021

On November 25, the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and Stimson Europe hosted the thirteenth “Brussels MENA Briefing”—a series of after-work briefings on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region—on “Iraq, Beyond the Election: Internal and External Implications”.

Speakers included Ali Al-Mawlawi, who works as an independent analyst and researcher and specializes on Iraq’s political economy, Marsin Al-Shamary, who is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Initiative (MEI), and Hussein Al-Waeli, who works as an accredited journalist at the European Union. The discussion was moderated by Kawa Hassan, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East and North Africa division and Executive Director of Stimson Europe.

Since the Iraqi elections on October 10th, news about the possible new government has been published on a daily base. Until this day, argued the speakers, it is still open who will be part of the new government and what direction the new government will pursue: will it implement reforms or hold on to the Iraqi status quo? The biggest issues in the formation process are the multiplicity of political actors and the armed wings of some of the political groups. The speakers emphasized that based on these two factors not only the number of seats received in the elections determine the power of political fractions, but also the leverage parties have in government formation negotiations.

At the moment two major groups are in conflict about the new government formation, as one speaker elaborated. On the one hand the Sadr movement, which was the clear surprising winner of this election, wants to form a government excluding the Coordination Framework, a shared body of Shiite parties. On the other hand, the Coordination Framework (including State of Law Coalition, Fatah Alliance, Aqd al-Watani Coalition, Nasr Coalition, Hikma bloc, and Kataib Hezbollah’s Huqooq movement) is working for a shared Shiite government participation. Both of these groups are likely to compromise in the end, argued one speaker, because none of the parties which has an armed wing is predicted to stay out of the government. This would include the major groups protesting the election results, such as the Fatah Alliance and the Sadr movement.

On the other hand, learning and experiencing how to be a successful and active opposition party is highly needed in the Iraqi parliament. The example of former Prime minister Maliki, who had weak results in the last Iraqi election and made a comeback this year, could help to inspire other parties to follow this path. Especially newcomers like the Emtidad movement, a party linked to the October protests, might foster a strong opposition. This change towards a strong opposition is needed, since it is part of society’s call for political reform, which broke out in several protest waves in Iraq in the last years. Overall, despite the problems the elections are pointing to, the Iraqi political system has a unique richness of parties, forming the possibility for high representation. Since the democratic system is still very young, processes are not settled yet.

The speakers also evaluated the role of different actors in the electoral process. One speaker argued that especially the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC) needs to work out better communication strategies for the electoral process. Similarly, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), as an international supporter of the elections, and the Iraqi religious leaders need to use their influence on the citizens to foster more voter mobilization in the future. Both lost influence on certain groups of citizens in the last years. Especially the influence of religious leaders on young Iraqis has decreased. This is an important development, since Ayatollah Sistani has been an important voice for democratic development of Iraq since 2008.

One speaker argued, that the protest movement, which was divided over taking part in the elections, is currently in a difficult situation. Those protesters who decided to participate in elections and got voted into the parliament will have to show that change is possible from within the system. It is questionable if it will be possible for them to keep their independent status, or if they will need to align with other more established fractions, argued the speaker. They might get further torn by the conflict between the two strong armed fractions, the Sadr movement and the Fatah Alliance. Other groups of protesters, who decided not to run or vote, will need to be convinced until the next Iraqi elections that there is a political body worth voting for. Otherwise, there will be only technical legitimacy of the government in Iraq, but no democratic. Such a situation, as explained by the speakers, would undermine any political action.

So far, the European Union (EU) has not developed a lasting strategy for Iraq. Some European member states are following their own strategy, as visible in the French representation at the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on August 28th, 2021. One speaker pointed out that the EU’s main interests in Iraq are related to security and migration concerns. Currently these concerns include the ISIS members from EU countries still present in Iraqi prisons and the Kurdish refugees present at the Belarusian boarder. The latter has in the past weeks received much attention and the European strategy includes hard pressure on the Iraqi government, including the threat to add Iraqi airlines to non-flight lists for the European airspace. This example shows that the EU has less interest in topics such as sustainable cooperation, as one speaker argued. The speaker further pointed out that there are several areas in which the EU could play an important supporter role, such as the much-needed juridical reform in Iraq or the support of freedom of speech, especially for protestors and the Iraqi press.

MENA Briefing, Mirjam Schmidt